/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Earth saga.Europa

Freya the Huntress

Joseph Lewis

Joseph Robert Lewis

Freya the Huntress

Chapter 1. Beast

A scream shattered the stillness of the night, echoing up the snowy slopes from the little cottage at the bottom of the valley.

Freya rolled her eyes and grinned. “How big a spider do you think Katja just found in the ice cellar?”

Erik smiled and leaned down to kiss her again.

The second scream was longer than the first, a warbling sound that shuddered with terror and pain in the darkness.

Freya sat up so quickly that she nearly smashed Erik in the nose, but her husband was already moving off her, standing up, and pulling on his trousers. As the young man dashed around the fire to fetch his spear, Freya grabbed her long leather coat and wrapped it around herself. “It’s not a spider.” She called up the hillside, “Arfast!”

Why would she scream like that? A bear? A ghost?

Erik was already running down the slope, his boots crunching on the frozen earth and frost-skinned grass, his steel spear flashing in the moonlight. His long legs flew over the dark terrain, but it was a long way back down to the little house beside the steaming lake.

A very long way.

“Arfast! Where the hell are you?” Freya yanked on her boots and grabbed her own spear just as the huge white elk appeared over the crest of the ridge and trotted down to meet her. Freya leapt onto the elk’s back and grabbed the shaggy fur of its neck. “Hya!”

The elk bolted down the slope, dashing across the loose scree. Tiny stones clattered in the shadows and plates of ice cracked and shot away down the hillside. But soon Arfast’s hooves were thumping on the frozen earth, and then he was dashing through the tall dead grass as they raced lower and lower toward the valley floor and the cottage beside the warm waters. Freya didn’t spare a glance for Erik as she passed him. All she could see was the wavering firelight in the window of their home, a single patch of warm color in the night.

The woman screamed a third time, and Freya hollered back, “Katja!”

The light in the window went out, and the night swallowed the cottage.

The white elk bounded over the low stone wall at the edge of the garden and slid to a halt just beside the house. Freya was already tumbling off his back as he trotted to a stop and she dashed to the doorway of the cottage with her spear in her hand. The leather curtain was torn away, letting a few feeble rays of starlight fall on the floor inside, but the rest of the cottage was hidden in shadow.

“Katja?” Freya hesitated. She could hear someone wheezing with wet and ragged breaths. “Katja?”

A black figure dashed out of the shadows, colliding with her shoulder and knocking her to the ground.

“Nine hells!” Freya kept her fingers wrapped tightly around her cold steel spear as she hit the earth, and she scrambled to her feet again, looking left and right for her attacker. Her heart was racing and a wave of heat washed through her arms and her face. She stared across the dark field, listening.


The figure hunched low by the water some thirty paces away, obscured by the shadows of the rocks along the shore. It wasn’t moving but she could hear its labored breathing over the soft rippling of the lake beneath the cold winter wind.

It’s too lean and too quick to be a bear.

She stared at the shape, willing her eyes to grow sharper, willing the moon to grow brighter, but neither obliged her.

Could it be a wolf? There hasn’t been a wolf in western Ysland in years, has there?

Erik vaulted the garden wall and jogged to her side, where he planted his spear in the soft earth. His left hand danced in the darkness, signing, “How many?”

“One,” Freya whispered. “There.” She pointed to the black shape at the water’s edge.

“And Katja?” signed Erik.

“Inside,” Freya said. “You check on her.”

“Wait here.” Erik ducked into the house.

As soon as her husband was inside, Freya crept forward across the grass, her spear trained on the dark figure. It was still gasping and rasping, still choking on its own ragged breath, or maybe something wet in its mouth. Freya held her spear lightly in both hands, ready to thrust, ready to throw. The sharp chill in the air made her eyes stand a little wider, and made every faint sound a little clearer. A brilliant half moon cast its white light upon the lake, illuminating the pale wisps of steam rising lazily from the waters.

A low growl rose in the creature’s throat.

Definitely not a bear. So what are you?

Snarling and snorting, the beast shuffled around to face her, turning so that all she could see were two golden coins shining in a patch of darkness. The coins blinked, and then the shadow sprang at her.

Freya stepped in to meet its charge, and she thrust her spear into the heart of the dark shape flying up at her chest. She felt the sudden weight on her spear and she twisted aside to let the beast’s momentum drive the spear-tip through its ribs and carry it away from her. But the creature reached out and pulled the blade from its flesh so that it could limp away and stagger back down toward the water.

It has no tail. What sort of animal has no tail, except a bear?

She shook the blood from the tip of her spear and spun the long shaft about to point at the creature again. Freya started forward, carefully planting one foot in front of the other, closing the gap.

I need to be quick, before it rallies, before it goes mad with fear. I need to strike the heart or the throat, and hold it until it dies. The strike has to be perfect, or it will kill me in its death throes. I need to be perfect, or I’ll die. And I don’t want to die. Not yet.

Freya sighted her target and inhaled.


The beast stood up.

It rose up on its hind legs, rearing up to its full height, taller than Erik by more than a head, and it stretched out its hairy arms to both sides as though to shred the sky itself with its claws. For a moment, as it stood spread out and leaning back to crack its spine, Freya saw the moonlight flash on the blood oozing from the creature’s chest.

Then it curled forward again, hunching its shoulders and letting its arms dangle in front of its belly, its claws shining in the darkness. It stared at her with nightmare eyes, bloodshot orbs studded with brilliant golden irises. The black nostrils on the ends of its snout glistened, and its black jaws gaped to display a forest of yellow fangs.

Freya felt the sweat oozing down her palms and the small of her back. She felt her heart pounding and her belly knotting. But she managed a grin and said, “Well, you’re definitely one of the ugliest rabbits I’ve ever seen.”

The beast lunged at her again, driving its claws at her face. Freya whipped the butt of her spear in a vicious arc to smash its claws and nose away, and the creature stumbled to the side. But it lunged again and this time there was no room to swing her spear. She held the shaft of her weapon across her chest to block the beast and it grabbed the spear, wrapping its claws around the steel on either side of her hands. The yellow fangs glistened just in front of her eyes and its hot breath blasted her in the face.

She winced. “And you eat your own scat, don’t you?”

Freya planted her feet and whipped her hips from side to side, but she couldn’t wrench her spear free of the beast’s grip. With a sharp grunt, she lurched backward, yanking the creature forward onto her. As it tumbled off balance, still clutching the spear between them, Freya flattened her back on the earth and planted her feet in the beast’s belly, flipping it back over her head.

The creature yelped and squealed as it wheeled through the air and crashed down on its spine. Freya felt her spear come free of its grip, and she rolled to her feet and whirled to face the beast again.

It was gone.

She felt her heart freeze in her chest. She didn’t breathe. Left and right she swung her spear, searching for her prey in the darkness.

Nothing is that fast!

A shuffling sound drew her gaze to the west, and there she saw the hunching figure loping away across the dark meadow. Freya stood up, hefting her spear in her right hand and tilting it back over her shoulder. And then she let it fly.

In the instant that it left her hand, the spear was swallowed up by the hideous shadow of a cloud passing across the face of the moon.

My throw was perfect.

Freya waited.

When the cloud retreated, the moonlight spilled down over the valley, painting the world in silver and gray. The beast lay flat on the ground with her spear standing tall in the center of its back. She dashed toward the body. Her hand went to her belt in search of her bone knives, only to find her belt wasn’t there. It was still lying by the fire at the top of the hill, along with the rest of her clothes.

Freya swept her hand across the ground and caught up a jagged stone. As she circled the body, she saw her spear lean slowly to the left, and then lean back to the right. With a grimace, she lifted her stone above the beast’s head.

A claw snapped out, wrapped around her ankle, and ripped her leg out from under her. Freya crashed to the earth, the air blasted from her lungs as her chest hit the ground. The beast lurched forward, dragging its stinking body over her legs, digging its claws into her calves and thighs. She stared into its amber eyes, choking on its fetid breath. Its jaws gaped a little wider, its yellow fangs dripping with thick, syrupy mucus. The beast growled.

A spearhead erupted from its temple and impaled itself in the dirt, right next to her head. The beast sagged, its eyes suddenly unfocused and dull. One last exhalation reeking of blood and rotten meat washed over her, just as Freya managed to take a full breath again with her aching lungs.

Erik’s footfalls thumped through the dead grass and a moment later Freya felt the corpse being lifted off her body. She sat up and blinked at her husband. “Thank you.”

He lifted her to her feet and signed, “Are you hurt?”

She shook her head. “What about Katja? Is she all right?”

Erik shook his head, just a tiny shake of his chin. He signed, “It looks bad.”

Freya dashed across the heather along the edge of the lake, leaving Erik to gather their precious steel spears and to do whatever he might do with the body of the beast. She flew through the sultry night air, breathing in the soft steam curling off the warm waters even as the ice glistened on the slopes above her. Arfast stood by the cottage, his huge brown eyes watching her bolt up the hillside and vanish inside.

She paused just inside the doorway to let her night vision fade and refocus in the bright yellow light of the rekindled fire. Theirs was a small house, just the one common room carpeted in old leathers and young furs. A handful of little stools stood long the right wall, each one a short tripod of bone with a sturdy leather seat bound across the legs. Hemp lines and leather nets and woolen sheets hung across the ceiling holding clay pots, bone spoons, spare coats, and what few other odds and ends they owned.

The two curtains on the left hid the bedchambers, little more than closets just large enough for the thick mattresses and blankets that she shared with Erik, and the smaller one that her sister slept in alone.

Katja was lying in front of the fireplace at the far end of the common room.

Freya rushed to her sister’s side. Katja was sweating and shaking, her breath whistling through her clenched teeth. Freya searched her body and quickly found the wound on Katja’s leg that Erik had bound in cotton cloth, now stained with blood. Under the bandage, Freya found a ragged bite mark with half a dozen deep punctures from the beast’s fangs. The skin around each wound looked green, veined with black.

“Oh gods. Katja?” Freya touched her sister’s cheek. “Katja, it looks bad. It’s going to need medicine. You need to tell me what to do. Katja? Katja?”

The injured woman moaned and shivered.

“Katja? Come on now, I would take you to the vala if I could, but you’re the vala, so there’s nowhere else to go.” Freya tried to smile. “Come on now, you can do it. It’s an infected bite, from a bear, or a wolf, I think. What do I do? Bleed it? Burn it? Wash it? Tell me what to do and I’ll take care of everything. Just tell me what to do.”

She was reaching down toward the wound again when a bony hand grabbed her wrist.

Katja stared up at her, white-faced and sweating. Her lip trembled. “Don’t touch it,” she whispered. “Keep it covered. It’s poisoned.”

Freya wrapped the bloody bandage back around her sister’s leg. “Poison? What sort? What do I do?”

Katja shook her head. “It wasn’t a wolf.”

“I know, I know, it was bigger and different, somehow. Look, it doesn’t matter now.” Freya shook her head. “Just tell me what to do. You’ve fixed up worse bites than this before. Remember when old Burli got his hand bit off by his own goat? Huh? Remember that? And you fixed that no problem. Well, more or less. The point being he’s still alive. So this bite here is nothing, nothing at all. How do I fix it?”

“You can’t.” Katja shook, her limp brown hair plastered to her face with sweat. “There’s no cure for this. It’s not a wolf. Remember the stories?”

Freya frowned. “What stories?”

“The old sagas. War stories. The gods and the demons.”

“Kat, this is no time for stories. We need some herbs or a powder or something. You’ve got lots of them here. Just tell me which one you need,” Freya said, glancing up at the long line of earthen pots and jars along the wall.

Katja gasped. “Ulfsark.”

“An ulfsark?” Freya leaned over her sister, wiping her brow. “No, no, no. That’s just an old story from the wars. That was just men wearing wolf-skins into battle. Berserkers and ulfsarks were just men, not beasts. And that thing out there was definitely not human.”

The young vala shook her head, and then rolled her face to stare at the doorway. Freya turned to see Erik standing there with the beast’s head swinging from his fist. The man tugged on his left ear, and then pointed to the creature’s ear as he came forward.

Freya stared. Two silver earrings hung from the beast’s tall hairy ear. She exhaled slowly. “Oh.” She turned back to her sister. “All right, just for a moment, let’s say it is an ulfsark. A real one. A real beast-man-thing. So what do we do for your leg? There must be something we can do, and don’t you dare say I have to cut it off.”

“Maybe. I don’t know.” Katja shivered. “Maybe Gudrun knows what to do.”

Freya nodded. “Gudrun, right, we can ask Gudrun. She’ll know. She’s old. All right, come on, let’s get you up onto Arfast. It’s a long ride to Denveller.”

Chapter 2. Tower

When dawn broke, the sun was still hidden beyond the mountains and while the sky glowed with the pale morning light the land slumbered on in the shadows. Freya strode up the ancient road with a bone-weary ache in her back and legs, but she ignored the pain. Erik marched tirelessly at her side with his spear on his shoulder, and Arfast trotted along behind them with Katja sleeping on his shaggy back.

They’d made good time from Logarven, hiking across country through the snow around the southern edge of Gerya Ridge through the long, dark night with the stars racing overhead and the aurora waves of green light lapping at the northern sky, and the thick mists drifting across the ground. And now, as the sky grew lighter and the breeze grew warmer, Freya looked out over the hills of dead and frozen grass and she saw the waves of Denveller Lake rippling with faint glimmers of the reflected sky.

“We’re almost there.” Freya glanced at Erik, but his hands said nothing in reply. She fell back a few paces and put her hand on her sister’s cheek. Katja’s skin was hot. Very hot.

At the north end of the lake they found the decaying ruins of a tiny village of three dozen stone cottages. The roofs stood open to the sky and the doorways gaped dark and empty like toothless mouths. One of the houses close to the water had partially collapsed, tumbling and sinking into the warm mud at the lake’s edge.

But one structure still remained in good repair. A small tower stood in the center of the desolate village. It rose three times the height of the cottages, a squared-off block of crooked black stones, its cracks and gaps filled with rotting brown grime that dripped and trickled down the dark faces of the building.

Freya pulled Arfast to a halt well back from the tower and frowned up at the ugly pile of stone.

Erik stopped next to her, his pale blue eyes sweeping the lifeless remains of the village. “Be careful,” he signed. “There are a lot of strange tracks around here.”

She glanced down at the churned up mud in the lanes. It looked as though a troop of men had run through the village.

Or a pack of beasts.

Looking up at the tower, she called out, “Gudrun of Denveller! I’m Freya Nordasdottir, and this is my husband, Erik. We’ve come from Logarven to speak with you.”

Her words echoed through the empty lanes and across the open waters. A raven screamed and hopped across the ragged grass roof of the tower and peered down at the intruders and their white elk.

“Maybe she’s gone,” Erik signed. “Or dead. I’ll go take a look around.”

“No, wait.” Freya pointed up at the tower. “Someone’s there, watching us.” She called out again, “Mistress Gudrun! We come in peace to ask your wisdom and help. My sister is ill.”

“You say you’re from Logarven?” a very young woman’s voice called down from the tower.

“We are,” Freya answered.

“There used to be a vala in Logarven. Couldn’t she help you? Or is she dead?” the voice asked.

“She’s not dead, she’s right here,” Freya said. “Our vala is my sister, Katja. She said to bring her here to see Gudrun. Are you Gudrun?”

“What’s wrong with her?”

Freya frowned. She had no time for games. There could be anyone at all hiding in that tower, and the voice was not that of a wise old woman. “She’s sick, and if you’re a healer we need your help, and if you’re not a healer then I’m going to come in there and put my spear through your belly for wasting my time!” She slammed her steel spear’s butt down on a stone and the impact echoed through the empty village. She rested her other hand on one of her bone knives strapped across her belly, and waited.

There was a muffled banging and shuffling inside the tower, and then a bundle of woven grasses flopped up from the roof and a figure emerged, silhouetted against the pale gray sky. The wind whipped up the girl’s hair, a long curling nest of dark red locks. She stepped up onto the roof and peered down at her visitors. The slender leather strap of a sling hung from her hand. “What’s wrong with your sister?”

“She was bitten by something. Is Gudrun here or not, little girl?”

“Little?” The girl smiled. “Well, I suppose I am little compared to some, but not compared to all. The good lord Woden never minded walking the earth as a fellow of modest size.”

“Woden also lost an eye, as I recall.” Freya shook her spear. “If you’re looking to be more like the Allfather, I’d be happy to help.”

The girl laughed. “Oh, thank you, but I am merely a humble apprentice and not worthy of such a holy offer.”

“Apprentice? To Gudrun? So she is here?”

“Of course she’s here,” the girl said cheerily. “Where else would she be? The good lord Woden has seen fit to unburden my mistress of the use of her legs, so she’s less inclined to wander the moors of late.”

Freya frowned and glanced at Erik, who merely shrugged. She said, “Can we speak to Gudrun now?”

“Of course you can, although I wouldn’t expect her to hear you very well, what with you being all the way down there and she being all the way up here, and asleep.”

“Then wake her!” Freya snapped. “My sister is dying!”

“Is she now?” The girl’s good cheer faded from her rosy cheeks and bright eyes. “What bit her?”

“A beast.”

“Like a fox?” the girl asked. “A fox as big as a man?”

Freya hesitated. The general idea was right enough so she said, “Yes.”

“Then I’m sorry. I’ll be sure to pray to the Allfather for your sister’s safe passage to the next world. But you need to turn around and take her away from here, right now. And when the sickness takes her over, you must be ready.”

“Ready for what?”

“To kill her.” The girl sniffed and glanced warily to her left and right, staring out at the distant hills before looking down at them again. “Go on now. Quickly.”

“I’m not leaving until I’ve seen Gudrun.” Freya left Arfast in the road and she strode up to the tower’s curtained doorway, which was nearly hidden under layers of mud and clay and gravel plastered over the face of the building. She reached out and clawed a small handful of filth from the edge of the door, and threw the muck down in the road. A small stone shrieked out of the sky and smashed her hand, leaving a thin red tear down the side of her thumb. Freya flattened herself against the cold tower and wrapped her fingers around one of her bone knives. Out in the street, Erik grabbed Arfast and pulled the white elk back behind a crumbling stone wall of an old cottage.

“I’m sorry that I have to ask you to leave,” the girl called down. “Woden has little love for a poor hostess, and I really would love to share some stories with you over some dandelion wine and roasted lamb, if you’ve brought any of either, but I won’t let you bring the plague into my home. I’m sorry about that, but there it is. And if you don’t believe that I’m sorry, then please believe that I have a lot of stones up here, and I’m pretty good with this sling.”

Freya glanced at the blood tricking down her thumb and then up at the lip of the tower’s roof shielding her from her attacker. “Maybe, but you can’t hit what you can’t see, and I won’t be coming out from under here until I get this door open!”

A second stone whistled down, ricocheted off a nearby cottage wall with a sharp crack, and struck Freya in the shoulder. She swore and darted to her left along the grimy black wall.

Above, the girl muttered to herself. “Well, I’m sorry, lord, but I tried being nice to them and you can see where that’s gotten me. You might have intervened, you know. A bolt of lightning or a valkyrie or two. I understand that you’re quite busy, lord, with the frost giants and so on, so I don’t fault you for leaving this business in my hands. It’s a wonderful show of faith on your part, I realize. Just don’t fault me for this when you’re measuring out my soul, if you could, Allfather. It’d be mighty decent of you.”

Freya slipped around the side of the tower, trying to catch a glimpse of Erik, but he was still on the far side of the crumbling cottage. She was about to dart across the road around another house when a third stone snapped off a distant wall and caught her in the hip.

“Nine hells! What are these, magic stones?” Freya muttered as she ran across the street and slid around a corner through the soft mud just as a fourth stone flew down, impaling itself in the roadbed by her foot. Freya called out, “What plague?”

“What?” the girl answered.

“What plague does my sister have?”

“There’s only the one these days. The reaver plague,” the girl said.

“Reaver plague? Never heard of that before.”

“It never existed before. But they raid our villages just like our sea-reavers used to raid the villages of Alba. And besides, do you know the old word for fox?”


“It’s refur.”

“If you say so.”

“I do. And if your sister’s been bitten, then she’ll be one of them soon enough. Rabid, crazed, and burning up with hunger. She’ll tear you to pieces. You, your elk, and your very quiet man-friend over there.”

Freya peered up the lane and saw Erik crouched at a far corner. He was gazing intently up at the roof of the tower, and he held a knife in his hand. “Is that what happened here?” Freya asked. “Was this village destroyed by reavers?”

“Yes, it was. They came last spring. We’d heard the stories, heard them for months, but no one believed them, of course. And then they came.”

Freya looked over at her sister lying limp on Arfast’s back. “There has to be something we can do for Katja. Has Gudrun ever tried to heal someone bitten by these reavers?”

The girl paused. “No. But then, we’ve never had one to heal. When was your sister bitten?”

“Last night. Midnight, maybe.”

“Oh, is that all? It takes a couple days for them to turn. Wait there a moment.”

Freya peeked out and saw the girl slip back down through the hole in the tower roof. The silence in the dead village spread out around them. The cool wind fell and the grasses stood motionless and the little waves on the lake dropped away, leaving the water as smooth as glass. Then the girl called out, “Hey! Come around this side!”

Down the lane, Erik nodded at the tower and waved Freya to go on. They led Arfast back to the tower and on the far side they found a knotted hemp rope dangling from an open window. The girl leaned out. “Climb on up. Gudrun’s awake and she says she’ll take a look at your sister. But at the first sign of trouble, I’m throwing you out.”

“Fair enough.” Freya climbed the rope and swung inside the room at the top of the tower. The space reminded her of home. The same bone and leather stools, the same pegs and nets along the walls and ceiling full of little tools and trinkets and clothes, the same little hearth against the north wall, and the same wool mattresses stuffed with grass.

And on one of the mattresses sat a little old woman wrapped in tattered blankets. She sneezed.

Freya waited for Erik to haul himself up through the window with Katja folded over his shoulder. He carried the feverish young vala to the empty bed and gently set her down.

The girl with the sling watched them from the far side of the room. Her wild red hair stood up and out at every angle, and her face was streaked here and there with mud and soot. She wore black from head to toe, and in the shadows of the tower room Freya couldn’t tell exactly what sort of shirt or trousers or skirts she might be wearing. “Do you have a name?”

“Wren.” The girl glanced at the sling in her fist, and then shoved the woven strap inside her sleeve. “It’s Wren. You?”

“Freya. Erik. Katja.” Freya nodded at the window. “Arfast.”

Wren nodded at the tiny crone on the bed. “Gudrun, holy vala of Denveller.”

Freya came over to kneel before the old woman. Gudrun perched on the edge of the mattress with her clawing, blue-veined hands resting on her knees. Her jaw hung slack, her lips parted in a tiny, silent O. A few thin shreds of pale gray hair clung to her spotted scalp, hanging over her clouded, milky eyes.

“Mistress Gudrun?” Freya touched her hand. “I’ve brought your seidr-sister, Katja of Logarven. She needs your help.”

A thin rasping sigh escaped the old vala’s lungs. A bright bead of saliva gleamed on her lip. The stink of urine filled the room.

Wren nodded. “She does that. Go on, she’s listening. Sooner or later, the good lord Woden will get her talking back to you. Go on.”

Freya frowned. “Gudrun? My sister Katja was bitten by a beast, a reaver. She has a fever and won’t stop sweating and shaking. I gave her some herbs to help her sleep, and she’s still sleeping now. The last thing she said to us was to bring her here to you, and that you would know what to do for her.”

The tiny crone’s mouth opened a bit wider and her pale tongue poked out, curling and trembling as though tasting the air. Freya leaned back, wincing. She glanced over at Wren. “Are you sure she can understand me?”

The girl nodded, her wide eyes fixed on her mistress.

Freya gripped the old woman’s soft hand and positioned her face directly in front of the vala’s unfocused, bleary eyes. “Gudrun, how do we heal a reaver bite? Mistress? How do we cure a reaver bite?”

The crone moaned softly and a thin trail of spittle fell from her outstretched tongue.

Glaring, Freya stood up. “This is a waste of time. She’s no vala, she’s a corpse that doesn’t know it’s dead yet.”

“REAVER!” Gudrun reached up and snatched Freya’s wrist, digging her filthy broken nails into the huntress’s smooth flesh. The bent little woman staggered up, pulling hard on Freya’s arm to keep her balance.

Freya grabbed the woman’s hand, trying to help her stand while prying the sharp fingers from her skin. “Yes, a reaver. She was bitten by a reaver. What do we do?”

Gudrun lurched forward three paces to the center of the room and pointed a crooked finger at the unconscious young woman on the other bed. “REAVER!”

Wren came forward to separate her mistress from their guest, and then she half led and half carried the old woman to the patient’s bedside. Gudrun peered down at Katja with her clouded, crossed eyes and her sagging lip dripping with saliva. “Skadi.”

“What?” Freya stared at her. “What did she say?”

“Skadi,” Gudrun whispered. “Skadi. Skadi! The queen is a witch is a queen is a bitch is a Skadi!”

“Skadi? Who is that?” Freya asked. “What does that mean? What about Skadi?”

Gudrun cackled, her shriveled head lolling back and to the left as the drool ran down across the side of her face. “Skadi knows, she knows, she knows!”

Chapter 3. Witch

Wren helped the shaking old woman back to her sodden mattress on the other side of the room. “Come along, dearie. That’s enough excitement for now. Let’s just sit down again and rest for a bit.”

Freya watched the girl carefully undress her mistress and change her skirts. The wet ones were thrown into a corner, on a pile of several others just like it. “Well? Who is Skadi? What was she talking about?”

Wren shoved her thick red hair behind her ear, and it promptly came free and fell in her face again. “Skadi was Gudrun’s apprentice, a long time ago. She left here to become the vala of Hengavik. That’s who Gudrun must mean.”

“Why would Gudrun think Skadi has something to do with the reavers?”

“From what I’ve heard, Skadi liked the old stories a little too much. Trolls and dragons and elves and such. She was a dreamer. Spent her life with half her mind someplace else, telling tales of Fenrir and Grendel. And when she was older, some people said that Skadi was actually looking for those creatures, trying to find their dens in the earth, their nests and whatnot, like they were real. Apparently, she spent a lot of time on Mount Esja, and in caves and holes.” Wren picked at her lip. “I can’t imagine the Allfather would be too happy with that.”


Wren looked up sharply, her eyes wide with confusion. “Because the good lord Woden spent ages killing off those beasties and locking them away. He didn’t go to all that trouble just so some witless vala could go about digging them all back up.”

Freya shrugged. “Fine. Whatever you say. So do you think Skadi might actually know how to help my sister?”

“Maybe, if you can find her.”

“You said she’s in Hengavik. My father took me there once when I was small. That’s not too far away.”

“You’re assuming the city is still there at all.” Wren crossed to the open window and looked down. “And that is a very large piece of meat you left standing down there. The reavers don’t wander around much in the daylight, but they might make an exception for your shaggy friend.”

“Forget about Arfast,” Freya said. “Tell me about Hengavik. Are you saying the reavers are there too?”

Wren grunted a humorless laugh. “This village used to have a hundred homes, with a hundred more spread out along the edge of the lake. It only took the reavers a few months to kill everyone or carry them off. And they pulled down half the cottages doing it, too. If this tower wasn’t so heavy and strong, it wouldn’t be here anymore, and neither would we.”

“How many are there?” Freya joined the girl at the window and peered out over the hills. The world stretched on and on in rippling waves of grass and stone and snow, in layers of muted grays and browns, and icy whites.

“More than I could count,” Wren said softly. She pointed at a set of rusty iron bars at their feet. “I keep the window barred except when I go out to find food during the day. At night we hear the reavers howling off to the north. But some nights I hear sounds down in the village by the water. Footsteps and breathing and sniffing and grunting.” The girl shivered.

A heavy hand grabbed Freya’s shoulder and Erik turned her to look at Gudrun. The old woman was standing up again, her legs bent, her back hunched, her arms crooked like a raven’s talons. Her mouth still hung open, the tip of her pink tongue visible between her toothless gums, her chin shining with drool. But she blinked her colorless eyes, and again, and again. Each time that she opened her eyes, they were a bit clearer, her irises a bit darker.

Her eyes shifted to Freya and the two women stared at each other. Slowly, Gudrun pulled her tongue back inside her mouth and closed her lips, and wiped her chin with her hand. She smiled a hideous smile that twisted all the loose flesh of her cheeks like curling smoke rolling up inside itself on a windless night.

“Reavers,” the old vala said. “There are reavers in the hills of Ysland. The last time such things prowled these lands, the Allfather came down to earth to slaughter Fenrir, the demon wolf, and left the beasts lying thick upon the heather in bloody heaps and piles. Now the reavers have returned, but the demon wolf is still dead in his cairn and the Allfather isn’t coming to save us.”

“Mistress!” Wren rushed to the woman’s side. “You shouldn’t be fully awake, you need your rest.”

Gudrun shook the girl off her arm and limped back to Katja. “I remember this one. Nordasdottir. I met her when she was barely able to walk. So much promise. Heh. But she can’t walk at all now.”

“She’s a very wise vala,” Freya said. “A good healer. A good ghost-talker. She’s helped a lot of people since her own mistress died.”

The crone nodded. “And now look at her. Burning up from the inside out, and well on her way to becoming one of them. A reaver.”

“No!” Freya grabbed the old woman’s arm. “There must be a cure. Katja thought you would know of one.”

Gudrun bared her naked gums in another hideous smile. “I don’t.”

Outside, the white elk whickered and thumped his hooves on the soft mud.

Freya stared at the woman’s withered face. “So that’s it? She’s going to turn into one of those things?”

“Unless you kill her first,” the vala said.

Freya grimaced and swallowed. A sharp snapping drew her attention back to the window where Erik was looking down at the ground. He snapped his fingers again, and started signing rapidly.

“What’s he doing?” Wren asked.

“He says there’s something out there, in the village, around the north side of the tower, out of sight.” Freya gripped one her bone knives and thought of her spear down on the ground, leaning against the tower’s wall. “It’s one of them. A reaver.”

Wren dashed to the far wall and scrambled up a crooked rope ladder to the ceiling and pushed her way up through the grass thatching to the roof.

“Stay or go?” Erik signed.

“Go.” Freya grabbed the knotted rope, slipped out the window, and climbed down to the ground. She snatched her spear from the wall and crept to the corner to spy out at the northern ruins of Denveller. The broken walls already looked more like a graveyard than a village, and with no one to maintain the houses, the heat of the lake would no doubt draw every last stone down into the soft mud within a few years, leaving no trace of Denveller but the defiant black tower.

Erik padded up softly behind her. Together they moved along the wall of the tower, peering down the muddy lanes and listening to the dim wet sounds of feet creeping about unseen beyond the broken homes. The morning sky was a perfect skin of pale blue, mottled only by the thinnest of white clouds hanging in the motionless winter air.

At the corner of the tower, yet another lane came into view. And there in the clear morning light stood two hunch-backed reavers. They had the bodies of men, stretched and crooked as though they’d spent a year on some torturer’s rack and had every bone in their bodies broken and mended poorly. Their pale gray flesh stretched tightly over their sharp ribs and shoulder blades, and every bit of them was covered in a thin coat of black and white and red fur.

Freya and Erik leveled their spears at the creatures, and the creatures fixed their eyes on the two hunters. Just like the one from the night before, these two stared out through bloodshot orbs stamped with dark golden irises. The reavers had blunt snouts and Freya could see the long matted hair still hanging from the backs of their heads in braids and knots, and hints of silver flashed in their ears and on their fingers. One wore the ragged remains of a filthy shirt around its shoulders that hung in tatters over its chest, and the other wore a belt with a single strip of cloth hanging down the side of its leg, but nothing hid the fact that both were female. Their mouths hung slightly agape, their yellowed fangs gleaming dully behind their black jowls, and bright beads of slobber hung in slender threads from their mouths.

A pair of low growls rumbled from their throats.

Two small stones whistled down from above and struck the creatures’ heads in quick succession, and Erik hurled his spear through the left beast’s chest, sending the reaver flying backward into the mud where it fell quivering and whimpering.

The second reaver sprang forward with fangs bared and claws outstretched, its blazing yellow eyes fixed on Freya’s naked throat. She dashed forward to meet it and planted the butt of her spear in the mud and stamped her boot on it. In the instant before the beast fell on her, she thought of the black figure that had wrestled her to the ground the night before.

Not this time.

Freya yanked her spear up and let the huge vixen impale itself on the blade, and she bore down hard with her legs, holding the shaft firm as the body slammed into it. The blade slipped cleanly through the creature’s gut and it slid swiftly down toward her, its long bloody claws reaching for her throat. Freya let go of her spear to pull her two bone knives from her belt and slashed one white blade across the reaver’s throat as she plunged the other knife into the palm of the nearest claw.

The beast’s full weight fell against her outstretched arms, but Freya dug her boots deep into the mud and held the dead body at arm’s length. It hung there a moment, its steaming black blood pouring from the wounds in its belly and neck. The two golden coins rolled back into the reaver’s eye sockets, its jaw trembling, and its lungs gurgling with blood.

And then it collapsed into the mud.

Freya slipped her knives free, wiped them in the dead grass, and put them away while Erik went to retrieve his spear. They both pierced the reaver’s hearts again just to be certain, and then trudged back to the tower, offering short waves to the girl on the tower roof, who waved and then climbed back down inside.

“Nice throw,” Freya said.

“Thanks,” Erik signed, grinning. “And you, a spear and two knives all at once?”

“I wanted to be sure.”

“Fair enough.”

A beast snarled, a girl screamed, and an elk snorted.

Freya bolted forward half a step ahead of Erik and she rounded the corner of the tower just in time to see a third reaver leaping down from the top of a cottage wall to land on Arfast’s shaggy back. Erik’s spear flew just as Arfast stumbled, and he missed his mark. Freya saw the claws shoved into her mount’s sides, the dark blood just beginning to trickle down through the elk’s dirty white hair.

She leveled her spear as she ran and thrust the blade up at the reaver, but the creature leapt clear, shoving Arfast down and the elk fell to the ground. The reaver hurled itself over Freya’s head and as she turned to look over her shoulder, she slipped in the mud, dropping to her knee.

The beast crashed down onto Erik, planting its feet on his thighs and slashing both clawed hands at his face. Erik raised his fists and blocked both claws as he staggered back under the reaver’s weight, and then he fell flat on the ground with the beast hunched on his chest. The monster’s head slammed down on the man’s throat.

“ERIK!” Freya felt her blood boiling and her skin burning as she scrambled to her feet and dashed back to his side. She hurled herself at the creature’s belly, planting both of her knives between its ribs and letting her own weight wrench the beast off of her husband and they all crashed down into the mud together. Freya rose up on her knees, her knife raised in her hand to cut the reaver’s throat.

And she saw a hand.

Erik’s hand, his red and white fingers straining at the beast’s neck, holding the fangs at bay as he crushed its windpipe. She leaned over the hairy, misshapen head and saw Erik grinning at her.

He winked and mouthed the words, “It’s over. Dead.”

The reaver’s claws were sunk deep into the man’s shoulders, but its foul maw was still some distance from his face. And when he took his hands away from its throat, the reaver’s head fell limp to one side. Freya gently pulled the claws from her husband’s flesh, wincing at the silent expressions of pain on his face. But after a moment, he sat up and heaved an easy breath and nodded.

“I’m all right,” he signed.

He’s all right.

She sat down on his lap, her calloused hands on his dirty cheeks, staring into his bright blue eyes. His lips parted and Freya kissed him, slipping her tongue deep into his mouth, feeling the soft wet warmth of his living body, tasting his breath and sweat and adrenaline and fear and joy. He gripped her waist tightly for a moment, and then let her go and they stood up together.

She looked at his bloody shoulders. “Can you climb back up?”

He grimaced and signed, “I’d rather not.”

So she sat with him on a broken stone wall and bandaged his wounds while Wren watched them from the open window. Arfast stood by the tower’s base, his eyes wide, his breathing swift and ragged. As Freya sat and listened to the tiny waves of the lake lapping at the black stones at the edge of the village, Wren disappeared from the window, but she stuck her head out a moment later and called down, “Freya! Come quick!”

Erik nodded and picked up his spear with only a slight grunt, so Freya jogged to the knotted rope and climbed back up to the tower window. Inside she squinted at the shadowy figures of the vala and her apprentice crouched by Katja’s head.

“What’s happening?” the huntress asked.

“Gudrun is trying to help your sister,” Wren said.

Freya knelt by the bed and saw that the crone had one shriveled hand resting on Katja’s forehead. On her frail middle finger, Gudrun wore a pale yellow ring. Freya inhaled sharply. It was only the second time she had ever seen rinegold in her life. Katja’s mistress had never owned such a relic, but she had told the children of Logarven more than a few stories about the powers of the strange metal. Legendary valas of Ysland had used the rinegold to save the injured and sick, to find long-lost treasures, to guide ships through the Sea of Ice, and to battle the hideous beasts that survived Woden’s war with the demons of Ysland. But most of all, they used the rinegold rings to speak to the souls of long-dead valas, to unlock the secrets of their ancient seidr-sisters.

And now a sliver of that rinegold was touching Katja’s sweaty brow.

Gudrun sat hunched and shrunken, folded in upon herself under a heavy wool blanket so that only her wrinkled face and desiccated fingers could be seen. The vala muttered, her dim and hazy eyes pointed across the room at the wall, seeing nothing. Her fingers closed, clutching Katja’s head, and Freya jerked forward but Wren held her back saying, “Wait.”

The crone’s head tilted back, the wool blanket slipping off her spotted head to her shoulders. Gudrun gasped, shivered, and convulsed forward. Wren grabbed the old woman’s chest and arm, trying to hold her upright, but the vala shoved off her apprentice. Gudrun wailed a horrid wordless cry, her head back, her jaw stretched wide, and her shriveled pink tongue flicking between her naked pink gums.

“Immortality!” The vala cackled, and then slammed her thin gums shut on the tip of her tongue. A tiny mote of pink flesh tumbled from between her pale lips, and a trickle of dark blood spilled over her chin.

Wren gasped. “No!”

Gudrun flashed a bloody grin at them and then smashed her head down onto Katja’s face. Wren shoved the old woman back and saw Gudrun’s head lolling on her limp neck, her face gray, her skin cold to the touch. Freya stared down at her sister’s face and watched as the smear of Gudrun’s dark blood crept across Freya’s skin and vanished into the rinegold ring on the vala’s finger.

Freya grabbed the crone’s arm and held up the crooked fingers to stare at the ring. “What the hell just happened? Is Gudrun dead? Did she just kill herself?”

Chapter 4. Frogs

With shaking hands, Wren took the dead vala’s arm from Freya and slipped the ring off Gudrun’s knobby finger and placed it on her own right hand. The apprentice’s face twisted and glared, and for a moment Freya thought the girl was going to vomit on the floor. But then she swallowed and sat up straight, and looked the huntress in the eye. “It’s all right.”

“What is?”

“Gudrun gave her soul to the ring, passing on her knowledge just all the valas of Denveller have done for generations.” Wren licked her pale lips. “It shouldn’t have happened until I was ready to take over. Not for years yet. I don’t know exactly what to do with it. It feels…”

Freya laid her hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Worry about how it feels later. Did all that wailing and bleeding do anything to help my sister?”

Wren shook her head. “No. But I know why Gudrun did it.” She held up the ring. “I can hear her voice in my head. I can even see her face, just a little, over there in the corner of the room. She looks a bit dark and dim, like a reflection in the water. She says she killed herself like this because she knew she couldn’t leave this tower, and because she wants me to go with you.”

“To help Katja?”

Wren nodded. “To cure the reaver plague.”


“I don’t know yet.” Wren went to the body of her mistress and arranged the old vala in a more restful pose on the floor with her eyes closed and the blood on her chin wiped clean. “We have to find Skadi first. She has the rinegold ring of Hengavik, and she’ll probably know more about reavers than any other vala in Ysland.”

“Fine.” Freya shoved her hands under her sister’s arms. “Help me.”

Together they wrestled the feverish woman to the window and lowered her on the knotted rope into Erik’s waiting arms. Freya helped her husband to settle her sister on Arfast’s back while Wren lingered in the tower, but eventually the girl in black came down from the window and stood with them in the mud. Two small sacks of stones clicked and clacked on her belt, and her sling was wound loosely around her right wrist.

“Uhm.” Wren glanced around, looking lost and sick. “All right then. I guess we just, that is, I guess we should, well, find Skadi. Allfather willing.”

The girl gave one last lingering look at her tower and then trudged off along a westward path out of the village with the others following a short distance behind. Freya kept one hand on Arfast’s shaggy neck and the other hand on her knives, while Erik thumped along with both of their spears resting on his bandaged shoulders.

After an hour of walking, Erik signed, “What are you thinking about?”

Freya said, “I’m just wondering if we’re doing the right thing. We could have stayed home and tended her ourselves. We could have taken her up into the hills to the hot springs above Logarven. But instead Katja’s lying like a sack of barley on Arfast’s back and we’re wandering through dead villages. Her skin is on fire, and her ears look bigger, and the hair on her arms looks darker. She’s getting worse, and this isn’t helping her. We should be helping her.”

“We are helping her,” he signed. “We’re looking for someone who can heal her. That’s all we can do.”


Wren squinted back at them, then turned around and began walking backward so she could face them. “Excuse me, but Gudrun wants to know about your friend there.”

“Erik is my husband,” Freya said loudly.

“Right, Erik. My mistress wants to know why he doesn’t talk.”

“Your dead mistress whose soul is in your little ring, and who speaks to you in your mind? Or you?”

Wren grinned. “I confess to being a little curious, as the good lord Woden wills, he being a seeker of arcane knowledge himself. But Gudrun wants to know too.”

Freya glanced at Erik and he nodded. She said, “When were young, Erik’s father took him hunting on the southern downs. They found a few deer, and the stag turned to defend his mate. Erik was standing too close to his father, and when the killing blow brought the stag down, one of its antlers pierced Erik’s throat, nearly killing him. The vala saved his life, but not his voice.”

“Oh, I see.” Wren stumbled over a small stone on the path, and she turned back around to continue walking. But a moment later she turned around again. “And he talks with his hands?”

Freya sighed. “Yes.”

“How did he learn that?”

“It’s something we made up together, him and me and Katja, when we were children. Only a handful of folk in Logarven understand it, but most know it well enough to get the gist of what he means, most of the time.” Freya stroked her sister’s damp hair back from her face, looking for more signs of the change.

“Can you teach me?” the girl asked.

“Why don’t you ask Erik to teach you? He’s right there,” Freya said.

“But how will I understand him?”

Freya grinned. “Well, now, that is the trick, isn’t it?”

Wren turned back around to watch where she was going as she muttered, “No, lord, that wasn’t very kind of her at all. And here I am, the very soul of kindness leading them on their way, walking myself into danger on their account. It’s a terrible trick you’ve played on me, lord, making me so wonderfully generous and filling up the world with less kindly folk to take advantage of me.”

They followed the western path along the shore of Denveller Lake and shortly they came across a pair of houses buried in the hillside above the steaming waters. Wren stopped and frowned at the empty doorways and the broken jug on the ground and the torn cloth flapping in the breeze between two stones in the mud.

“What is this place?” Freya asked.

Wren shook her head. “It’s nothing. Just a place. Just a home. But not anymore, I guess. The reavers have been here, too. They’ve been everywhere.” She paused to gaze out at the lake. “I’m sorry, but there’s something I need to do. Good luck. I hope you find help for your sister.” And she headed down toward the tall reeds at the lake’s edge.

“Wait, where are you going? What about Skadi and the reavers and Gudrun? You can’t go off on your own.” Freya followed her, and Erik led Arfast after her. “We should stay together. It’s too dangerous to split up.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’re right,” the girl said, casting a nervous grin over her shoulder. “But I can’t ask you to take the time when your sister needs your help now.”

Freya frowned. “How much time? What’s going on?”

“My family.” Wren reached down into the tall grass and pulled a flimsy reed boat out from under a turf outcropping in the shallows. “I need to know if they’re still alive. They’re on Delver Island. I don’t know if… whether… the reavers can swim, or use a boat…” She sniffed and dragged her sleeve across her nose. Her face was pale, her cheeks red with windburn, and her hair flying wild in the wind.

Freya glanced back at Erik and her sister, and then out at the lake. “How long will it take to check on them?”

Wren shrugged. “Less than an hour of paddling. You can almost see the island there.” She pointed to the south.

Freya saw a dark blot on the horizon. She looked at her sister’s motionless body again. “Is it on the way to Hengavik?”

“It’s to the south, so it’s more or less on the way.” Wren sat down in the shaky little boat. There was no paddle. “Allfather knows, I don’t want to leave you, and neither does Gudrun, but I have to know if my parents are still alive. And if they’re still there, I need to get them out.”

Freya nodded. “An hour, that’s almost nothing at all. I’ll go with you. Erik can follow the edge of the lake and we can meet up with him later this afternoon. Right?”

Wren stared up at her. “Right. I mean, if you were to, that is, to go, I mean come, with me, then it would only be an hour there, and less than that to come back to the road. I just need to see them for a minute, just a few minutes, just to tell them…”

“I know.” Freya gently squeezed the girl’s arm. So they agreed on a meeting place that Wren described, a crossroads marked by a broken stone pillar where Erik would wait for them. Moments later Freya sat down in the thin, rotting boat behind the girl in black and they pushed away from the reeds into the warm waters of the lake, and began paddling with their bare hands.

A thin green slime clung to the surface of the water and to their hands, and Freya winced at the muck coating her skin. “There isn’t anything dangerous in this lake, is there?”

“Just flies and frogs.”

Freya nodded.

They swept their hands through the warm scum, shoving the flimsy reed boat along the surface. The bottom of the boat rippled and wrinkled with the undulations of the lake as they headed due south, and Freya kept one eye on the western shore of the lake where Erik and Arfast were plodding along the dirt road, until the shore became a thin black line and her husband disappeared.

The gnats buzzed and the frogs croaked, and the lake steamed lazily in the afternoon sun. The blot on the southern edge of the world quickly grew into a wide mound of rock rising above the water and Freya stared intently at the island as they approached it, scanning for black clouds of flies, for dark mounds of bodies, and for any other signs of predators. But there were none.

Thick green grasses hid the edge of where the island met the lake, and as they pushed through them and emerged into a shallow lagoon, Freya looked up at the two great ridges to the east and west of them. The rock faces were gray and barren, but the center of the island sloped down to form a gently curving bowl where lush grasses and untended fields of barley and wheat waved in a riot of greens and golds.

Just ahead near the shore of the lagoon, Freya saw a smooth mound of mossy earth and stone, the telltale shape of two long houses built back to back, with several small gardens with low stone walls of their own nearby. And looming above the man-made earthworks was a single finger of stone, a tall gray spear of rock with ragged edges but a smooth face, and on that face Freya could already see, even at a distance, the long lines of runes carved into the stone.

Wren glanced back at her. “Have you heard the story of the rune stone of Delver Island?”


“The Allfather himself carved it.” Wren nodded as she turned back to her paddling. “It was in the ancient days, long before Woden made war on the demons and the giants. The Allfather walked the earth in search of power and wisdom, speaking to serpents and birds. But he learned nothing, and he despaired. So when he came to this island and saw that rock spire, he climbed to the top of it and hurled himself upon it, impaling himself on it, sacrificing himself to the world in exchange for its secrets.”

Freya frowned, only half listening to the girl’s story. Her eyes kept straying to the open waters of the lake and the unseen shore where her husband and her sister were waiting for her. Somewhere.

“For nine days and nine nights, the Allfather cracked his spine and spilled his blood on the stone, hanging upside down. The ravens gathered to drink his blood and to whisper their secrets to each other. And Woden heard them speak of the runes, so he grabbed two of the ravens, one in each hand, and they screamed.” Wren spoke in a reverent whisper, her face turned up toward the rock spire. “The other ravens attacked him, tearing his flesh, even tearing out his eye. But he held the two ravens fast, crushing them until they revealed the secrets of the runes and the seidr-magics to him. And they made a pact, Woden and the ravens, to share their wisdom together and to never make war on each other again, and they swore in blood, and carved their oaths onto that stone there, for all time.”

“I don’t see anyone,” Freya said. “Your family, I mean. It looks deserted.”

The girl glanced around. “I hope so. I hope they left a long time ago.” Wren let the boat coast into the thick reeds and tall grasses at the shore before stepping out into the knee-deep muck and slogging up onto dry land.

Freya followed, and took her two knives from her belt. The sharpened bones felt strong and solid and certain in her bare hands. The blades were still fresh, still new, taken only a month ago from the legs of a mountain goat high in the hills above Logarven.

A month ago.

Freya squinted at the empty houses in the shadow of the rune stone.

A month ago everything was fine. And there were no reavers. At least, not in my world. My world was perfect a month ago.

Wren jogged into both houses and came out again just as quickly. “There’s no one here, and no sign of people living here anymore. My parents must have taken everything with them. Clothes, tools, food. A long time ago, I think. A year at least.” She nodded and heaved a sigh. “That’s good. They must have gone south. I just wish they’d told me.”

Freya nodded. “Sure.” She glanced around the small island again, but there was nothing to see or hear but the wind, the grass, and the stones. “We should get going.” She put one of her knives away.

A frog croaked.

Wren hesitated in the open doorway of the one of the houses. “I used to play here and watch my father come in with the day’s catch.”

Freya put her other knife away and waded into the reeds toward their boat. “Wren?”

The girl paused a moment, then turned back toward the lagoon with a glum nod.

Freya swatted a few flies away from her face and heard another frog croak. It was a very loud croak. She turned slowly to look down into the thick reeds and grasses. A few paces away in the shallows there was a round, wrinkled lump. Gray and green, it looked like any other slimy rock at the water’s edge. The lump shifted and she saw that it was indeed a very large frog, at least as large as her head, with stiff clumps of wiry black hair standing in a line down its spine. It swiveled its eyes.

Freya swallowed.

Those aren’t its eyes.

“That frog has ears,” the huntress said calmly. “Why does that frog have ears?”

Wren sloshed to a halt in the shallows and peered into the tall grasses at the green-gray mound with the wiry hair. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

The frog waddled slowly around to face them, swiveling its bulbous black eyes and its triangular black ears toward the two women. It croaked again, very loudly, and a second croak answered it from a few paces farther down the shore, and a third one answered that. Soft, wet, sucking sounds echoed down the beach as the frogs shifted and crawled about in the shallows.

Freya reached down to the boat and turned the floppy thing around, replacing it on the green-scummed waters beside her leg. “Come on, let’s go.”

Wren nodded as she waded out the last few paces and took hold of the boat’s side.

“Ow!” Freya whirled around as a sharp pain invaded her thigh, and she saw the long pink tongue of the closest frog stretched out across the marshy waters and stuck fast to her soaked trouser leg. The tongue pulled on her gently, tugging on her clothes, and the frog began to float closer to her, dragging itself through the tall grasses as it folded its hideous tongue back into its head. But the tongue popped free with a soft squirting noise and then raced back to its mouth. Freya pulled a knife free as she glared at the frog.

The frog lifted its body up a bit higher in the water, focusing its gold, unblinking eyes on her and flicking its hairy ears free of the clinging algae. Its throat bubbled out and in, heaving another loud croak across the lagoon, and a dozen more answered it, and the answers sounded very close, and came from every side.

“Into the boat, move, move,” the huntress said softly.

Wren tumbled gracefully into the front half of the boat, which bent and flopped around her body as she folded her skinny legs in front of her. “Okay, your turn.”

But Freya didn’t move. She didn’t dare take her eyes off the huge amphibian squatting in the muck just a few paces away, and it stared straight back at her with its flat golden eyes. Its whole face was prickled and spined with wiry black and white hairs, there was something hideously wrong with the way it bent its long spotted legs as it rose up a little higher out of the water, standing so that its belly just barely broke the surface. The frog slowly parted its fleshy gray mouth, opening it wider and wider, until its lips curled back to reveal its red, bleeding gums and the rows of yellow fangs ringing its soft jaws.

Freya stumbled back and grabbed the side of the boat as the huge hairy frog leapt at her with its fangs dripping around its open mouth. It flew up out of the water toward her chest, and then its tongue burst out and flew at the huntress’s face.

“Don’t let it bite you!” Wren shrieked.

Freya ducked and slashed at the frog with both knives, one flashing up to skewer the creature’s mouth shut and the other slashing down to hack off one of its long, crooked legs. She whipped her arm back and hurled the frog off of her knife, throwing it over her shoulder into the water. Freya straightened up in time to see Wren let loose three small stones in quick succession from her sling, each one whipped from the woven strap with only a moment’s pause to reload and re-clasp before the next stone was whistling across the lagoon.

The frogs began croaking louder and faster, and clumsy splashes echoed all around them as the water churned with fat green and black bodies. They lurched through the muck, sometimes leaping and sometimes walking on their too-long legs toward the women.

Freya grabbed the back of the boat and shoved it toward the mouth of the lagoon and the wider lake beyond. The soft muddy bottom fell away beneath her feet, and Freya clutched the warping, sagging side of the reed boat as she kicked and paddled to push farther out from shore. Wren knelt in the bow, hurling stone after stone at the surging mass of bloated, hairy bodies swimming after them. The croaking became a roaring, unbroken drone as hundreds of cold-blooded throats joined the chorus. Freya felt something bump her leg and she nearly screamed, but she kicked and thrashed and when she looked over her shoulder she saw nothing near her.

“I’m running out of stones!” Wren shouted over the croaking.

Freya had no breath to answer. She’d pushed the boat out past the stone walls that marked the end of the lagoon and the island and she could feel the water growing a bit cooler now with every stroke. But her arms and legs were burning and aching, and the green algae slime coated her whole body, weighing her down, dragging her back.

The croaking grew a bit softer, a bit farther away. Still Freya kicked and paddled and gasped for breath, spitting the warm muck away from her lips as it trickled down her face. Wren grabbed her arms and Freya shook her off, but the girl said, “It’s all right, it’s over, they’re gone!”

Freya twisted left and right, only able to see a short distance with her eyes bobbing just above the waves, but she couldn’t see any frogs or splashes, and the sounds of the croaking had faded into a distant echo within the vast stone bowl of Delver Island.

They’re gone.

Freya kicked and jumped and crawled up into the floppy reed boat with Wren tugging at her slick, wet clothes. They fell into the boat together and lay still for a moment, chests heaving as they raced to catch their breath.

Freya grinned. “Don’t let it bite you?”

“Yes. So what?” Wren sat up and wiped her hands on her skirt. “It was perfectly sound advice.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

They both laughed, and after a moment Freya sat up and began paddling with her hands, steering them around the edge of the island toward the western shore of the lake.

Wren shifted around to help with the paddling. “They had teeth,” she said softly.

Freya nodded. “Yes, they did.”

“Why? Why did they have teeth, and ears, and hair?”

Freya looked back at the mouth of the lagoon, and saw only the dark waves lapping at the gray shore of a quiet island. “Maybe the whole world’s gone mad.”

Wren shivered. “We’re going to die, aren’t we?”

Freya laughed again, a tired and shaky laugh, and she wiped her wet slimy hand across her mouth. “Everyone dies, sooner or later. There’s no escaping that, so there’s no use worrying about it. No, what you’re really scared of is getting eaten by frogs with teeth and big hairy ears, aren’t you?”

Wren managed a tired smile. “Well, sure. After all, they can hear us coming better than the usual sort.”

“Well, don’t you worry,” Freya said as she felt her heart finally calming in her chest. “If a frog tries to eat you, I’ll be sure to give you some helpful advice.”

“Like what?”

“Like, don’t let it eat you.”

Chapter 5. Ghost town

They rejoined Erik and Arfast at the crossroads just above the lake’s shore, and after a little while on the road Freya felt her clothes and hair drying out, though the stench of rotting plants clung to her. An hour later on the westward road, Freya heard her sister whispering in her sleep. Katja’s ears felt even larger and more pointed than before, and tiny white hairs and red hairs stood up on the young vala’s cheeks and neck and hands.

“She’s getting worse,” Freya called out. “We should stop and rest, and try to break her fever.”

“Hush! Not so loud.” Wren trotted back to them. “There’s no help for your sister here.” She swept her arm out at the bleak yellow hills dusted with snow, which stretched on and on with only the bluish outlines of the mountains in the distance. “And it’s too dangerous to rest in the open, not with the reavers prowling about. They could be anywhere. We need to keep moving, and quietly at that, or we’ll all be dining with the good lord Woden this evening.”

“Well, how far is it to Hengavik now?”

“Not far. Just another hour or so, I think.”

“I don’t remember Hengavik at all,” Freya said. “Is it large? Well-defended?”

“I don’t know. Gudrun took me from my parents when I was tiny, barely walking. And I’ve never left Denveller except to gather herbs.”

“Then how do you know that Hengavik is only an hour away?”

Wren smiled brightly. “Vala’s intuition.”

Two hours later they paused at the crest of a low rise and looked out over a flat plain of grass rippling in the breeze. In the far north Freya saw a great mountain smoking against the pale afternoon sky, and to the south another, smaller volcano squatted at the edge of the world, a thin trail of black rising from its summit to the heavens. But down on the plain lay the town of Hengavik, a man-made warren of hundreds of stone houses and earth houses, most sunken into the plain or clustered back-to-back to form unnatural looking hills at regular intervals along the meandering lanes.

But none of the travelers were looking at the houses or the roads.

In the center of the city there rose an enormous skeleton, a vast sun-bleached ribcage resting at an angle, as though the Allfather himself had hurled a frost giant across Ysland and the demon had speared into the ground head-first, and been left to rot where he fell. There was no sign of limbs, no skull, no shoulder blades or horns or wings or fins to tell what gargantuan beast might have actually died there. Only the ribs remained, partially silhouetted by the late day sun.

“Ever seen anything like that before?” Freya asked.

Erik shook his head.

Wren shook her head and glanced skyward. “Lord, in all our little chats together, especially the ones that were all about you, you might have mentioned this. I’m not saying I deserve to know every little thing about you or me or Ysland, but this seems somewhat important.”

Freya stared at the ribs. They rose as tall as ten or twelve men above the floor of the plain, many times taller than the tallest buildings in Hengavik, which were no larger than Gudrun’s tower. And the ribcage stretched four or five times as long as it was tall from the center of the town down toward its southern edge. She tried to guess how many pigs or sheep or elk or even men might fit in the giant’s belly, but the sheer size of the thing defeated her. It was too large to imagine, too large to believe. Her mouth worked, but no sound came out.

Erik’s hand began to move. “If this was ancient, wouldn’t we have heard of it?”

Freya nodded. “Wren, when you lived in Denveller, did you meet many travelers from Hengavik?”

The girl nodded. “Many, when I was younger. Not so many lately. And none at all in the last year.”

“And you’ve never heard of this… thing?”

The girl shook her head. “I think I would remember if a tinker had mentioned the bones of a giant lying in the center of the town.”

Visions swam through Freya’s imagination, visions of frost giants and white whales and Fenrir, the demon wolf. As a child she’d always thought of the god-king Woden as a man, a man with unfathomable knowledge and power, but a man nonetheless. And the frost giants had merely been taller men, and the demon Fenrir had merely been a large wolf.

But now, as she stared at the otherworldly remains of a creature that must have stood half as tall as a mountain, the ancient stories came alive for her as never before, the universe expanding into a playground for gods and monsters unlike anything she had ever known. And she, and her home, and her life, which had all seemed so solid and real and important just a moment ago, were reduced to snow dust in the maelstrom of eternity.

Freya blinked and glanced at her sweating, wheezing sister sprawled on the back of a dirty white elk, and suddenly the vast universe seemed just as unreal and irrelevant as it had to her as a child, and she was about to tell the others to get moving when Wren whispered, “The old stories are true, aren’t they? All of them. The reavers and Fenrir. Woden and the frost giants. It’s all true.”

“You doubted?” Freya asked quietly as the wind whipped her long blonde hair around her face.

“I’ve spent the last seventeen years alone in a tower with a crazy old woman, and the last several seasons in a deserted village with monsters wandering the countryside.” Wren sniffed and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “I figured the gods had forgotten about me.”

“But you talk to Woden all the time.”

The girl shrugged. “I guess I needed to talk to someone, and a god makes a good listener. Do you think he minds me talking to him the way I do?”

Freya shook her head. “Well, if he’s a decent god, then I’m sure he appreciates the attention. And if he’s not, then to hell with him.” The huntress nodded at the giant skeleton. “But either way, it looks to me like Woden’s had other things on his mind than you or me, lately. Come on. Let’s go.”

But Erik held up his hand. “Where are the people?” he signed.

Freya looked again at the empty fields and the empty streets, and she listened to the breeze playing softly through the tall yellow grass. “You think the reavers have been here too? The reavers killed all the people?”

“If not the reavers, then whatever that thing was.” Wren nodded at the skeleton.

“Right, well, either way, we need to keep moving.” Freya led Arfast down the gentle slope to the flat plain and together they crossed the fields to the gravelly edge of Hengavik. They paused before entering the town and listened to the utter silence of the stone ruins before them. No voices, no footsteps, no animals, not even the wind. Just the stillness of an empty grave. Using hand signs, Freya told Erik to take Arfast and told Wren to watch their rear. And then, with the tip of her spear leveled at the empty road ahead, she led them into the town.

They walked quietly down the first road, following its gentle curve to the south past empty homes that gaped and stared like skulls at the travelers, just as the ones in Denveller had, only here the cottages were in better repair. Walls were straight and roofs appeared water-tight, and leather curtains flapped in several windows and doorways. Overturned, lost, and broken pots and jugs lay in the road, some completely intact and others smashed into dust that ground beneath their boots as they passed. Freya sniffed in the lanes and she poked her head into doorways to sniff in the shadows, but she smelled nothing at all. No food, no rot, no dung. Time had swept all of Hengavik clean.

Freya moved carefully down the empty lanes, pausing here and there to listen or to sniff, or to bend down and peer at the dust at her feet. But if there were any tracks, she couldn’t recognize them on the gravel roads. And every step they took brought them closer to the great ribcage towering over the town and casting nightmare shadows across the plains by the light of the setting sun.

The sky was violet and the world beneath it was gray and cold when Freya reached the first of the giant’s ribs. Erik and Wren lingered in the road behind her as she stepped forward and touched the massive bone.

“It’s not bone,” she said. “It’s steel. Old and rusted. And look, there’s moss growing on it here, and grass inside there.” She pointed. “But not much. It’s been here a few years, but not many.”

Wren crept up to her side. “Steel? Frost giants had bones of steel? No wonder only the Allfather could kill them.”

“Maybe.” Freya scraped her spear’s blade along the face of the rib in front of them, watching the rust flake away and flutter to the ground. Above them the rib swept up in a dramatic curve to touch the slender spine of the creature. “Or maybe this isn’t a frost giant. Look there.” She pointed down the belly of the beast to a twisted, blackened mound.

“The heart?” Wren clasped her hands to her chest, her fingers rubbing at the rinegold ring on her right hand. “Gudrun says to beware its heart.”

“Let’s take a closer look.” Freya led the girl inside the enormous cage of steel ribs to the small mound and they looked down on the tiny bits of steel melted onto the broken rubble of the house that no doubt had stood where the giant had fallen. Freya squatted down and scraped her bone knife along a charred lump nailed to the ground with a small metal spike. The lump made a crackling sound, and chips of blackened char fell from it.

“What is that?” Wren asked.

Freya picked up the chips and sniffed them. “You’re not going to believe this.”

“Why? What is it?”

“I think… I think it’s wood. Old, burnt wood. Real wood, from a tree.” Freya pocketed the strange treasures, along with a few more bits from the scorched lump, and then she led Wren back out to the street where Erik and Arfast waited with Katja in the deepening shadows of Hengavik.

“So much for finding Skadi,” Freya said. “No one’s here. No one’s been here for over a year.”

“It’s getting late,” Erik signed. “We need to find a safe place to sleep.”

“Yeah, I know.” Freya pointed up the road. “Let’s take a look up that way.”

They resumed their earlier formation and the huntress led the others up the gravel lane, away from the giant’s ribs, and up to the open doorway of a long house buried in a man-made hill side-to-side with a second identical house. Both houses ran in a straight line with a second door at the far end, and the earth had been piled over them like a husband and wife lying together under the blankets in bed. With a bit of effort, they wrestled Arfast’s antlers through the doorway and Wren saw to making Katja comfortable while Freya and Erik spent the next half hour piling heavy stones in the southern doorway, and making the northern doorway narrower.

Night fell quickly, draining the last remaining shreds of light from the sky, and a thousand tiny eyes winked open in the darkness above, staring down at the dead town in uncaring silence. Erik took the first watch, so Wren and Freya both lay down beside the feverish Katja and went to sleep with empty bellies.

Freya woke quickly when Erik touched her arm, but he was smiling and yawning, not telling her that there was some new danger.

“It’s midnight. Mostly quiet,” he signed. “There was some howling, but it was far to the north, and that was more than an hour ago.”

She nodded and glanced at her sister and the young girl in black beside her. Both were sleeping soundly, though Katja was panting through her open mouth in quick shallow breaths. Freya frowned, but turned away. There was nothing she could do for her sister at the moment, so she reached for her spear to take the watch. But Erik caught her hand and kissed the inside of her wrist, and then the side of her neck, and she closed her eyes and felt the heat of him moving across her skin to her mouth and she let him press her back down onto her blanket, his tongue surging between her lips, his hands massaging her neck and hips as he lay down beside her.

Freya wrapped her arms around his head, trapping his mouth against her own for a moment, and then she pushed him back and saw the disappointment and understanding mingled in his eyes as he leaned back and let her sit up. She leaned over to bite his ear, and then stood up, fetched her spear, and went to sit by the open doorway. A soft breeze sighed through the empty streets and the sound of the grassy plains rustling filled the night with a chorus of distant whispers.

Her bones were tired but her mind was not, and the cold air kept her eyes feeling sharp. Wrapped in her heavy wool blanket with her arms and legs curled around her spear, she sat in the doorway and stared up at the stars, at the thousand cold eyes staring back down at her. When she looked down at the empty road beyond the door, it was covered in a thick white mist.

Aether. Damn.

Freya glared at the fog. It flowed past the doorway like a river of clouds and sea foam, swirling and rippling and rolling upon itself. She stood up and stepped outside, checking the road in both directions, but there was nothing to see.

Not yet, anyway.

With the speed and grace of a mountain lion she leapt up the side of their earthen house to stand on its grassy roof and look out across the town with her spear planted beside her. The mist lay thick and white upon the ground, blanketing the gravel roads and lapping silently at the empty doorways of the abandoned homes. And to her left, toward the western end of the town, Freya saw the shadowy figure of a man walking slowly down the center of the road toward her. The huntress frowned.

Ghosts. I hate ghosts.

It took the man several minutes to come down the road to the house where Freya stood exposed on the roof, and when he arrived the ghost paused and looked up at her. “Have you seen a fair-haired girl come by this way?” he asked. He held his hand by his waist. “About this tall?”

Freya blinked and tightened her grip on her spear. The steel felt cold and clammy. “No,” she said softly.

The ghost nodded and continued on his way down the street and around a corner out of sight.

Then a shadowy woman emerged from a house across the street and wandered off to the south without sparing Freya a glance. And then the shade of an old crone shuffled by. And two solemn children. And a husband and wife. And on and on they came by the dozens, drifting silently through the streets, occasionally pausing to look at something or someone, even exchanging a few quiet words with each other, and then continuing on their starlit strolls through the streets of Hengavik.

After several minutes of watching the aethereal dead wandering the town, Freya jumped down from the roof and stepped back into the open doorway of their shelter. Sometimes a ghost would appear in the road in mid-stride, and sometimes one would vanish just as suddenly. Their quiet voices murmured through the streets as they spoke to each other, offering bland greetings and asking simple questions, usually about whether the other person had seen a certain lost soul lately.

An hour passed and Freya came to realize that there were no more than a dozen faces among the ghosts, but because they kept wandering in circles, appearing and disappearing suddenly and randomly, it seemed that there were more.

The aether at her feet began to thin, revealing patches of the road, and the ghosts appeared less and less often around her, staring into empty houses and asking each other if they had seen this little girl or that old man. Freya watched them with an anxious gnawing in her belly, wondering how they died, and when, and why. And why were they wandering the empty lanes of Hengavik at all, instead of sleeping in the cold earth? Ghosts were common enough in Ysland, but never so many in one place, and never wandering for hour upon hour.

Leaving her spear leaning against the wall, Freya stepped out into the street into the path of a shadowy woman, her features drawn in wisps of aether that fluttered in ragged lines in the weak breeze.

“My name is Freya,” the huntress said.

The ghost paused and glanced away. “I’m Dalla,” she whispered.

“What happened here? What happened to this town? Where are the people?”

“Dead.” The ghost lowered her gaze to her feet. “All dead.”

“How did they die? War? Famine? Or was it the reavers?” Freya resisted the urge to reach out and take hold of the dead woman, to force her to look her in the eye.

“The fox plague…” The ghost of Dalla wrapped her arms around herself and shivered as the breeze stiffened and threatened to tear apart her fragile form of mist. “The fox plague took some away, and left others dead.”

Freya nodded. “When?”

Dalla shook her head. “I don’t know. A day, a year? I can’t tell one night from the next.”

“Oh.” Freya pushed her hair back over her head. “Can you tell me about the giant? The creature with the metal bones on the south side of town. Was it a frost giant? Or a whale from the sea?”

“It was like a whale.” Dalla looked up sharply, a wide-eyed look of wonder splashed across her face. “Yes, like a whale. It fell from the sky in the night, streaming fire across the heavens. It came from the southeast, plummeting like a wingless bird. I stood in the lane and watched it grow larger and larger, bigger than anything I had ever seen before. The beast smashed down into the ground, crushing the houses. Its skin was on fire, sweeping from nose to tail, shredding its flesh to the bones.” The ghost’s mouth hung open, moving slightly as though she had more to say but couldn’t find the words.

Freya squinted through the gloom in the direction of the skeleton. “Was that before or after the reavers came?”

“Before.” Dalla nodded. “I was alive then. I saw it fall. The reavers came later, and then I wasn’t alive anymore.”

The huntress winced and nodded and stepped back into the doorway of her shelter. “Thank you. Farewell, Dalla.”

“And to you.” The dead woman took two steps and vanished, leaving Freya alone with her spear and her thoughts, though neither gave her much comfort.

Chapter 6. Family

Freya woke to the sound of Wren waking Erik beside her. Night had faded into day once more, and a weak light fell through the doorway to illuminate the cold stones and earth of their beds. The aether had drifted away, taking the shapes and faces of the ghosts with it, leaving only the empty homes behind.

They ate nothing because they had nothing to eat, so they wrestled Arfast out into the street and stood staring at the distant hill crests as their breath steamed in the morning air.

“What now?” Wren nodded at Katja. “She’s getting worse. Gudrun tells me that your sister will be waking up soon, crazed and feral, mad with hunger. When that happens…”

Freya looked at her poor beautiful sister and saw limbs stretched too long and thin, fingernails stained yellow and narrowing into claws, and everywhere her skin wore more and more hair in blood-red and snow-white that hid the pinks of her cheeks and neck and chest. Katja’s ears were taller and sharper, and the bottom of her nose had grown black and rough to the touch.

“Should we go back east?” Erik signed. “If the reavers have killed everyone in the west, then maybe we can still find another vala somewhere to the east of Logarven where the reavers haven’t been yet.”

“No.” Freya banged the butt of her spear on the gravel of the road to feel the steel hum and shiver in her hand. “In the east, the reavers are still just stories from the old wars. No. The plague came from the west. If there are any answers to find, if there’s any cure for Katja, it’s in the west.” She rested her spear on her shoulder and nudged Arfast to follow her. “Let’s go.”

Erik set out just a step behind, but Wren did not move.

Freya called back over her shoulder, “You don’t have to come with us.”

“If the good lord Woden wants me to die by the claws of the reavers, then far be it from me to second guess his wisdom,” the girl said. “But he hasn’t mentioned any such plans to me yet.”

“Then go home, with our thanks.”

“Alone?” Wren began shuffling after them. “Back to that empty tower?”

“If you want.” Freya cracked her knuckles against the haft of her spear. “On the other hand, you’re more than welcome to come along with us.”

Wren grunted and glanced up at the sky. “Certain death behind me and certain death ahead. That’s quite the riddle, lord. I suppose I should have made it more clear in my prayers that I’m not as fond of riddles as you are.” The vala apprentice quickened her pace to catch up to Erik. “But I’ll do my best to unravel this one. Just don’t let me die before I do.”

Freya and Erik exchanged a silent smile.

They left Hengavik and its grassy fields and followed the old ridge road up west. The smoking peak of Mount Esja glowered down at them from the distant north, its lower slopes gleaming snow-white and blue against the pale sky. They were less than an hour on the road before Erik said he could smell the salty sea air. Freya smelled the change in the air as well, but whether it was the sea she could not tell. Something else, something foul, lingered in the hills.

Dark clouds gathered in the west, shrouding the sky and rumbling with the first angry hints of the storm to come. Freya minded the road, scanning for fresh tracks of men, or mules, or sheep. But the only tracks she could identify were fox prints, and they were all far too large. Erik moved on ahead, a hundred paces or more, always cresting the next hill long before the women and Arfast did, and each time he would wave the all-clear sign.

It was nearing noon, with the sun shining weakly on the shrubby hills patched with ice, when Erik reached the top of a hill, dropped to one knee, and raised his fist. Freya pulled the white elk to a halt and told Wren to stay put, and then the huntress jogged up the road to her husband’s side. He pointed to the northwest.

A bright warble of cold water ran down from the skirts of Mount Esja and raced in its narrow channel down through the hills, and not far from their hilltop Freya could see a small water mill standing beside the swift stream. The mill sat half-buried in the bank beside the water, roofed in turf that would hide the building from any travelers on its northern side, but to the south it presented a crooked stone face with a crooked, curtained doorway. Its three water wheels spun steadily in the water, each one a cleverly lashed arrangement of ribs and femurs with oiled leather sheets stretched tightly over the paddles to catch the water.

“It’s still working? Why the hell would anyone need a mill where all the farmers are dead?” Freya asked.

“Look again,” Erik signed. “Most of the paddles have rotted away. The bones are just spinning loose. And there used to be more than three, but the others are gone.”

Freya nodded, trusting her husband’s keen eyes over her own. He’d always had stronger vision and sharper ears, even before his injury, before he was excluded from the world of conversation and found himself simply listening and watching, year after year, until Freya and Katja had helped him learn to speak with his hands.

“It’s not far,” Freya said. “We should take a look inside. There might be food.”

“Really?” Erik raised an eyebrow.

“Maybe in a cellar buried along the bank, something forgotten when the people left, or ignored when the reavers came.”

They followed the road a bit farther and then struck out along an overgrown footpath down a gentle slope through tall grasses and crunching snow to the edge of the stream across from the mill. Thin plates of ice clung to the banks, floating on the silver ripples of the stream. The water wheels were indeed broken and rotting, still turning in the water but no longer able to turn anything inside the mill.

Freya leapt across the water and quietly dashed to the roof of the mill where she searched for tracks and signs. The ground above and behind the mill was wild and unmarked, but at the edge of the stream where the earth was softer, she saw the footprints leading to the door of the mill. She pointed at them and Erik nodded. They were boot prints. And they were fresh.

“Hello?” Freya circled around the mound of the buried mill and approached the muddy bank where the door faced the water and the broken wheels spun in the stream. “Is there anyone here? We’re travelers from Logarven. We mean you no harm. We’re just looking for some food.”

A dry scrape echoed from inside the mill, the sound of a boot on earth or stone. Freya rested her hand on her favorite knife. A gift from Erik, it had a serrated edge and a sculpted handle that fit her thin fingers perfectly. Holding it tightly reminded her of home.

There were a few more soft scuffling sounds inside the mill, and Freya began to wonder if she had been mistaken, if there was no man inside at all but some lost sheep or goat. Erik lowered his spear and nodded at the doorway, and Freya pulled back the leather curtain.

Inside it was pitch black, save for the rectangle of light from the doorway that revealed nothing except for a smooth earthen floor. The scuffling sound came again, louder and faster, as though some animal was struggling to stand or to run, but couldn’t.

Wren screamed and Freya spun around, crashed across the freezing stream, and scrambled up the steep bank toward the sound. She reached the top of the slope with Erik half a step behind her. Just a stone’s throw away there stood a man in a filthy wool cloak with one arm wrapped around Wren to pin her arms down, and his other arm wrapped around her neck with a steel knife in his hand. He had a scraggly blonde beard and his grimace revealed several missing teeth between his cracked lips.

“Who are you?” His voice broke and shook, choked with phlegm. He spat in the grass.

“Let her go. Now!” Freya pointed her long spear at the man.

He tightened his grip on Wren, and the girl thrashed about, kicking at his legs and trying to smack her skull back into his face. He lifted her up off the ground and gave her a hard shake, and she fell limp, her eyes blinking and head lolling as she gasped for breath.

The man shifted his arm around her neck to press the edge of his knife to the girl’s throat. “What do you want? Where’d you come from?”

“We saw the mill and thought there might be food.” Freya edged forward as Erik moved sideways to flank the man. “Now let her go. We don’t want to hurt you, but I’ll kill you before I let you kill her.”

“Food?” The man jerked his head at the mound of white fluff on the ground beside him. “I got food. I’ll trade you the sheep for the girl.”

“No deals until you let her go.” Freya took another step closer, tilting up her spear toward the man’s face above Wren’s shoulder.

The man’s eyes darted over to Arfast, who stood serenely a short distance away. “What about that girl there, the sleeping one?”

“We don’t deal in folk. No one deals in folk, not since the old days, and even then never for Yslanders.”

The man spat in the grass again. “Yeah, well, times change.”

“Last chance! Let the girl go!” Freya moved closer still and placed one hand on the butt of her spear, readying for a side-arm thrust.

It will have to be perfect, over Wren’s shoulder and straight through his eye.

She’d have preferred Erik to do it, but Erik was standing in the wrong place. From his position he could keep the man from running, and he could keep the man turned toward Freya, but he couldn’t run him through without hitting Wren. A pity. He’d always been better with the spear, and she with the knife. Nothing to be done about that now.

A queer look came over the man’s eyes as he stared at Katja’s motionless figure on the back of the elk. “She’s bitten, isn’t she?”

“That’s right,” Freya said.

Instantly the man let Wren go, shoving the girl hard so she stumbled several steps away before she caught her balance. The man stared at them one by one. “What in the nine hells are you doing with her? Why’d you bring her here? Are you crazy? They’ll smell her. They’ll come for her, they could be coming now.” He spun about, his wild eyes scanning the horizon. He grabbed up his dead sheep and started toward the mill. “Get away from here! Get away from me! Go, now!”

Freya lowered her spear, watching the man stumble through the tall grass as fast as he could. And she was still watching him when Wren let loose a stone from her sling and caught the man in the back of the head. He went down hard, dropping the sheep and falling down the bank to the stream’s icy edge.

Wren slowly wrapped her sling around her wrist and glanced at Freya. “What? Gudrun told me to do it.”

Freya shook her head and went to the edge of the embankment to look down at the man, who was crawling out of the water and rubbing his head. She was about to turn away and suggest that they keep moving, perhaps in search of a sheep of their own, when a mournful whine cried out from the mill.

It was a pained sound, a frightened sound, a hungry sound.

It was not a human sound.

The man by the stream froze, Freya and Erik dashed to the edge of the slope with their spears at the ready, and Wren grabbed Arfast before the shying elk could bolt.

“No, no, no!” The man waved his empty hands at them. “Stay back! It’s all right!”

“Nine hells, you idiot!” Freya shouted. “There’s a reaver in there!”

“NO!” The man threw himself across the stream and stumbled to the doorway of the mill. “No! Please! It’s my brother!”

Freya stopped and stared at the man, the same disgusting man who had tried to buy her sister just a moment ago with a dead sheep, and she lowered her spear. “Your brother has the plague. How long has he had it? Is he very far gone?”

The man nodded. “He was bitten last winter, and he changed soon after. But it’s all right, because we knew what was happening, and we chained him to the wall before he changed, to keep him safe.”

The huntress grimaced. “He’s been chained up inside there for a whole year?”

The man nodded. “Yes, yes, and I feed him and take care of him, to stop the changes, to keep him as human as I can.”

Freya glanced at Erik with wide eyes and trotted down the slope to the edge of the stream. “You can stop the changes? How? You have an antidote to the poison? Did a vala give it to you?”

He shook his head. “No vala helped me. I helped myself. It wasn’t hard. One look at him and I knew what I had to do. It’s nasty work, but he’s my brother, after all. I had to do it. You can come and see if you want. Just keep your sister away. I don’t want her smell on this place.”

Freya called back to Erik, “Stay with the others. I’ll just be a minute.” She jumped across the water and leaned her spear against the wall of the house, and with both hands on her bone knives, she ducked inside the mill behind the man. As she stepped into the shadows, she kept her eyes on her host, watching his hands for some sign of treachery, but he stood back in an empty corner, his hands empty and shaking and running through his greasy hair. Up close, she realized he was younger than he had looked before, and against her own better judgment she felt a slight kinship to him, a young man trying to save his plague-bitten brother, alone in a desolate land.

Then she looked to the far end of the room. For a moment she froze. Then she yanked her knives from their sheathes and shoved the man against the wall with one blade to his throat and the other to his belly as she snarled, “What did you do to him?”

The thing at the end of the room shivered and whined, its chains scraping softly on the stones and earth of the walls. The floor around it was carpeted in old hair and dried blood, and the air stank of urine and feces. The creature edged forward away from its wall, its chains rattling, and the light fell upon it.

It was stretched and crooked like a reaver, the shape of its body elongated and knobby like the beasts Freya had fought in Denveller. But there the similarities ended. This reaver had no fur because it had been shaved with a knife, which had left the creature covered in gray stubble and festering red cuts where the blade had slipped. It had no claws because its fingers and toes had been removed at the knuckles, and the small stumps on its hands and feet were black and yellow where the wounds had been closed with fire.

The top halves of its ears had been hacked off at jagged angles, and the rest of its face had been shaved in the same manner as its body-badly. Its eyes were gone, sliced out to leave the sockets dark and empty, and crusted with blood and flies. And around its short snout was a crude leather muzzle, wrapped over and over again around the thing’s jaws to hide its nose and mouth completely.

Stripped of its fur and claws and ears, blinded and bloodied, the thing before her did not look like either a beast or a man, but a mangled corpse.

It shivered and whined again.

“What did you do?” Freya whispered.

“What I had to.” The man’s voice shook. “I took away all the unnatural bits. Cut out the poison. That’s what you have to do, so I did it.”

The creature reached out to paw with a severed limb at the dirt blackened with its own blood.

“He was your brother.” Freya swallowed.

The man nodded. “That’s right. You understand. I couldn’t kill him, not my own brother. I had to save him. I had to do what no one else could do. I had to-”

“He was bitten,” Freya said. “He was changing. He was in pain. He was afraid.”


“So you shackled him to the wall.”


“And you mutilated him.”

“I… no, no!”

“Maimed him.”


“Tortured him. Your own brother.”

“No, no, no! I had to-”

Freya slit the man’s throat and watched him slump to the floor, choking on his own blood. He reached out toward the muzzled creature across the room, and died. The huntress wiped her knife on his clothes and put it away, and then stepped outside to grab her spear and bring it back in. She leveled her weapon at the blind monster in the shadows and said, “I’m sorry, but it’s over now.”

And she ran her spear through its heart.

When she left the mill, she said nothing to the others, and they asked nothing of her. She handed the miller’s steel knife to Erik, whose tired eyes said all that he would ever say on the matter, and Wren just bit her lip and looked at the ground. Freya led the way back to the road and set out west again, with the others trailing behind. They walked all afternoon, pausing only once when a chorus of howls rose in the distance behind them.

Chapter 7. Guards

“That’s it,” Wren said. “That’s Rekavik. If there is a vala left in the west, Skadi or otherwise, she’ll be in there.”

On the western rim of the world the sun sat blazing in cold silence, and Freya looked down on a city beside a sea painted with bright splashes of blood and gold. The city sprawled across a broad peninsula jutting out into the sparkling bay where chunks of blue-white ice bobbed on the waves. From end to end it was three times the size of Hengavik, and much of it was twice as tall. The houses were all built of the shoreline stone, the same iron gray color as the rumbling clouds overhead, and each home looked to have an arching roof of turf supported by the bones of whales, bears, and deer, and each one so high that Freya guessed they held hanging attics of food stores and rope beds.

A heavy stone seawall ran along the water’s edge, as thick as a tall man and half again as high. The outer face of the wall was slimed with weeds and algae, but the top was pale and smooth, and the wall broke only twice that she could see for two iron doors that stood above the ancient stone quays reaching out into the bay. A few men stood on the quays casting fishing lines and nets over the dark, icy waters.

Another, taller wall ran across the south side of the city, cutting the small peninsula off from the rest of Ysland. This wall was three or four times the height of a man, and newer, and clumsier. The stones had been jumbled every which way and mortared in clumps and drips, leaving huge rocky bulges in some places and tiny sky-filled gaps in others. A handful of men stood on top of the wall, each one armed with a spear and sword, and the only breach in the inland wall was a single doorway, barely large enough for a horse to walk through, and that portal was sealed with an iron door as well.

Freya marched down the road to the door with a wary eye on the armed men above her. They watched her approach, slowly clustering together in the center of the wall so they could all get a good look at the newcomers in the deepening shadows below. Wren hurried up to Freya’s side and muttered to her, “Lord Woden is ever a friend to those who tell the truth, but he’s also one to appreciate the art of not getting yourself killed.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning there’s no reason to tell these people more than they need to know about Katja.”

Freya glanced back at the snoring woman on the back of the elk. “I think they’ll notice the hair and the ears, sooner or later.”

“If that’s our choice to make, then I choose later.”

The huntress nodded.

“Who’s there?” called down a huge bear of man with a wild brown beard and naked scalp steaming in the cold sea air.

“I’m Freya Nordasdottir of Logarven,” she answered. “My husband, Erik. Wren of Denveller. And my sister Katja, the vala of Logarven. Who are you?”

The man smiled a broad white-toothed smile. “I’m the fellow on the wall asking the questions. What’s wrong with your sister?”

“She’s hurt, and sick. We need shelter for the night.”

“Oh? Just a night, is it? Planning to move on in the morning?”

“We’re looking for a vala named Skadi, from Hengavik. Or any vala, really. Gudrun of Denveller sent us to speak to her.”

The men on the wall talked among themselves for a moment before the bearded man called down, “What business do you have with the queen?”

“Queen?” Wren frowned at Freya. “The vala is a queen? That’s not good.”

“Valas have been known to marry. I suppose they can marry a king as easily as any other man,” the huntress said. She called up to the warriors, “We’ve come to learn about the reavers, which have destroyed Denveller and reached Logarven in the east. Gudrun said that Skadi could answer our questions.”

“Where is Gudrun now? Still in Denveller?”

“Gudrun’s dead,” Wren yelled. “No on lives in Denveller anymore. It’s as dead as Hengavik.”

“And Logarven will join them soon unless we stop the reavers,” Freya added. “Can we come into the city?”

The bearded man nodded. “Come to the door.” And he disappeared from view.

“Well, that was easy,” Erik signed. “I’ll cover Katja. Maybe we can avoid an argument.” He unfolded a wool blanket and draped it over the sleeping woman, leaving only the dark brown hair at the top of her head uncovered.

They approached the iron door in the great wall and a moment later they heard the bangs and clangs of steel beams being lifted away, and stones being rolled, and men grunting. The door swung inward halfway with a vicious squeal, and then stuck fast in the passage. The man behind it grunted and jerked and shoved until the door banged free and smashed into his toe, and he limped back from the open doorway muttering curses faster than Freya could hear them.

The bearded man paused in the narrow stone passage, shaking his foot and shaking his head, but after a moment he straightened up and gave the newcomers a squinty-eyed look. “So then. I am Halfdan Grimsson, keeper of the gate and captain of the guard. Let’s have a look at you.” He waved them in.

Freya and the others filed past the iron door and through the narrow passage and emerged onto the twilight streets of the city where a dozen men bearing steel spears and swords stood frowning at them.

Halfdan waved them in away from the open door and then hunched down in front of Wren. “Show me your teeth, girl.”


“Just do it,” another man barked.

Wren sighed and opened her mouth. Halfdan nodded. “Good.” He inspected Erik and Freya in the same fashion, and then reached over to pull the blanket off Katja.

“No, leave her alone. She’s sick,” Freya said, stepping in front of him.

Halfdan shook his head. “We check everyone. No exceptions. Even our own hunters, even if they were only out for half an hour. This is a safe place, and it’s damn well going to stay safe. So either I look at her teeth or you can all go right back out the way you came in.”

Freya put her hand on her sister’s covered head. Erik and Wren both shuffled closer to the white elk, but the guards were quick to poke them back again with their swords. Freya nodded. “All right, look. She was bitten. But she isn’t-”

The men erupted in a chorus of shouts, some telling the newcomers to leave, others threatening to slaughter them in the street. Spears and swords flashed with the light of the torches, and the huntress grabbed the handles of her bone knives.

“Shut up!” Halfdan roared, and the men fell quiet, though their faces remained just as cruel and dark. “Now listen here, girl, if your sister’s been bit, then she’s not coming into the city, and that’s the end of it. So either you can take her and leave, or you can kill her yourself, or we can do it for you. No one will blame you for not wanting to kill your own kin. The Allfather knows we’ve all had to do the same and we’d wish it on no one. But the plague doesn’t pass these walls, not for anyone or any reason.”

“The Allfather knows a great deal more than that,” Wren said. “And the valas of Denveller know more than most. Do you know what this is?” She held up her hand with the glint of yellow on her finger.

Halfdan’s eyes widened. “Rinegold?”

“That’s right,” the girl said loudly. “I am the keeper of the souls of all the valas of Denveller, and I’ve brought them here to help Skadi cure the reaver plague and save our people. But I won’t come in unless you let Freya bring her sister.”

Halfdan’s expression fell back into stony resolution. “Then you don’t come in.”

Wren stared. “But… I have the ring… and the souls… and the cure.”

“No exceptions.” Halfdan sniffed and spat in the street. “Maybe you can end the plague and maybe you can’t, but this city stays safe either way. So what’s it going to be?”

Freya counted the men and their swords, wondering if there was any chance of fighting past them, of escaping into the city, of racing to the castle down by the sea.

No, no chance of that at all.

She took her hands off her knives. “You can lock her up.”

Halfdan smirked and shook his head. “No exceptions.”

“You can lock her up in a cell, underground, guarded, in chains.” Freya swallowed. She imagined Katja shackled to a wall, whining and whimpering in the dark, her body mangled and twisted.

“No exceptions.”

Freya lurched forward and shoved the big man back. “If we find a cure, we’ll need someone to test it on, won’t we? And when that time comes, do you want your queen to send you outside your precious walls to capture a fully turned reaver with a whole pack around him, or do you want to go down to a cell where there’s just one reaver, already in chains?”

Halfdan narrowed his eyes and tilted his head. “The latter, I suppose.”

“Then help me put my sister somewhere safe.” Freya reached back and took hold of Arfast’s shaggy coat. “And then you can take us to your queen and be done with us, and go back to guarding your precious wall.”

Halfdan paused, then grinned and called over his shoulder, “Bar the door! Back to your posts, all but Aenar and Tryggvi. We’re letting them in.”

The other guards sealed the iron door and returned to their posts on the dark wall, and most of them grumbled a few curses on their way. Halfdan took the lead and his two friends took the rear and together they all entered the city of Rekavik. The area just inside the wall looked very much like Hengavik, with the same half-buried homes and turf roofs, though here every chimney was smoking and firelight flickered around the doorway curtains, and voices echoed in every house, talking, laughing, and shouting.

A few old men sat smoking their little bone pipes in the lane, a few young women stood gossiping in the shadows, and a few small children still ran through the roads, shouting and fighting and laughing as their mothers called them in to supper. The smells of baked fish and fried fish and seared fish crept from every home and mingled in the streets, telling tales of the meals about to be eaten. Freya licked her lips and teeth, tasting the salt and oil in the air.

As the road sloped down closer to the sea, the houses stood up taller and taller, until they were no longer buried in the earth at all but free-standing and mortared with all manners of clay and mud, with whale bones and walrus tusks arching over them, wrapped in oiled leather to create bulbous roofs that looked like living beasts beached on the stone houses, their innards glowing with firelight and rippling with the shadows of those who dwelled within.

Ahead Freya saw the castle squatting in the center of the peninsula, two levels high and ringed with a high wall. The highest point of the whole building was the tower in its center, but it looked to only be one or two levels higher than the rest of the structure. A dozen trails of smoke were draining upwards from the castle on all sides, but the voices were lower in this neighborhood. There were no men smoking or children playing here.

Halfdan trudged down to the castle gate and walked straight through the narrow iron door in the castle wall, leading the way into the small courtyard where several more men with swords stood beside an open peat fire. Halfdan waved to them, and they waved back, and the bearded guardsman turned left along the inner wall.

“Here.” He pointed at a dark corner against the outer wall of the castle.

Freya saw another iron door, one older and rusted at the bottom of a short stone stair dug into the earth. She trotted down and opened the door, and saw a dank windowless cell barely large enough for two people to stand side by side. A pair of manacles hung from a chain on the back wall. Freya closed her eyes and rubbed her temples.

It’s only for a day or so. That’s all.

“Erik? Can you bring her down, please?”

A moment later her husband came down into the darkness beside her and laid Katja gently on the floor. There was no room for three bodies, so he went back up the steps while Freya gently closed and locked the manacles around her sister’s wrists and then tried to arrange her sleeping body more comfortably on the cold stone floor.

She brushed the hair back from Katja’s face and saw the plague warring with her sister’s flesh, wrinkling her skin and thrusting out the coarse red fur, deforming her nose into a canine snout, blackening her lips, and sharpening her teeth. Katja’s breathing was quick and shallow. Freya leaned back and looked away to wipe her eyes. And then Katja growled.

The fox-woman lurched up and wrapped her long hairy arms around Freya’s waist, shoving her down to the floor and nearly smashing her skull against the wall. Freya looked down once at the huge golden eyes in the feral head, and then she drove her elbow into the black nose, and another elbow to the eye, and another elbow to the ear, and each time Katja would snarl or whine, her eyes impossibly wide, her long black tongue flopping around her mouth, her long white fangs lunging and snapping at Freya’s bare throat.

The huntress wrapped her arms around Katja’s head, pinning that beastly mouth shut against her own chest, and she rolled violently to her right. The twisting motion pulled the chains taut and Katja yelped and let go. Freya leapt to her feet and jumped for the door over her sister’s sprawled body, but a long crooked claw snatched her leg in midair and yanked her down again.

Freya fell flat on her face with the doorway right in front of her nose. Her chest and legs were ablaze with pain, and her brain was boiling with adrenaline and naked fear. She kicked and kicked as hard as she could, smashing her heels down on anything she could strike, and she felt the hard impacts to her sister’s head jarring both of their bodies to the bone.

Katja let go again with a horrible high-pitched yelp and squeal, and Freya lunged up out of the cell and onto the stairs. She turned to grab the door handle and saw her sister’s monstrous face flying toward her out of the darkness.

Freya froze.

The chains clanged taut and the creature stumbled back into the shadows, and Freya slammed the door. She sat there on the ground a moment, the cold air shooting in and out of her sore lungs, stinging her throat. Her blood pounded in her bruised hands and chest, and tiny white spots fluttered across her vision.

She could feel Erik and the others standing over her. They might have been talking, but she couldn’t focus on them, couldn’t worry about them. She could only stare at the iron door. But after a moment, she stood up and climbed the steps, avoiding Erik’s gaze and Wren’s stare as she turned to the bearded guardsman.

“It’s done,” she said, wiping her hands on her trousers. “Now take me to Skadi.”

Halfdan led them inside past the guards into a small dirty room where dozens of heavy fur coats hung on the walls, and then into a long, smoky dining hall where countless bone stools stood or laid against the walls in small piles and three long fire pits glowed full of embers. A handful of old men sat around the last fire, huddled under their blankets, chewing on roasted seal ribs. They were wrinkled and gray men, hunched and dim-eyed, but the bare swords on their belts were bright enough and sharp enough.

At the end of the hall was a curtained doorway where Halfdan paused to say, “Wait here.” As soon as he spoke, two of the old men stood up from their seats and rested their hands on their swords. They still looked wrinkled and gray, but they stood as straight as their blades and the thick veins on their hands hinted at their strength.

“Wait for what?” Freya kept her eyes on the two older men.

“For me!” Halfdan shook his head as he pushed back the curtain. “I have to tell the queen that you’re here.”

“Can’t we just tell her ourselves?” Wren asked. “It might save time.”

Halfdan stared at her a moment. “No.” And he left.

Freya, Erik, and Wren exchanged confused looks to confirm that they all found the procedure ridiculous, and then settled into gazing dully at the two men-at-arms standing by the fire. The other men went on eating as though nothing at all had happened.

The iron door beyond the cloak room clanged and a sharp pair of boots clacked on the stone floor behind them. “What idiot brought that damn animal into the city?” The voice was high for a male, and a moment later a very young man strode into the dining hall.

Freya guessed he was just a bit older than Wren, maybe twenty winters at most, and he wore his youth proudly. His beardless cheeks were pale, his long black hair shone in the torch light, and his sealskin trousers clung to his slender legs. His short leather jacket had been dyed black and his cotton shirt was bleached bone white. His left hand rested on the silver pommel of the sword on his hip, and his knee-high boots shone with oil as he strode across the hall.

He jabbed a finger at the old guards and his voice rose with every word until he was shouting with flecks of spittle on his lips. “How hard is it to understand? You don’t let reavers into the city, you don’t let them past the walls, and you don’t put them in a cell inside the damn castle!”

Freya stepped in front of him with both hands on her knives. “That reaver is my sister.”

The youth stopped and bared his teeth in the most vicious smile she had ever seen. “Then you don’t have a sister anymore, do you?”

What? Did he kill her?

She drew both knives at once, shoving one at his throat and the other at his belly. But the youth’s long-fingered hands were faster, whipping his sword from its sheathe. He smashed her hands aside with the silver pommel and shoved the edge of blade at her neck. Freya’s eyes went wide as she saw the bright gleam of the steel vanish under her chin.

Steel clanged in her right ear, and then scraped harshly beside her head. She turned and saw Erik holding his new steel knife just above her shoulder, blocking the youth’s sword. Her husband grabbed the collar of her coat and yanked her back as he stepped forward, still holding his small knife against the long sword.

Freya glanced once at the older guards, but the two men on their feet looked bored and the four men sitting at the fire were merely watching over their shoulders as they ate.

“I don’t know your face,” the youth said. “Who the hell are you?”

Erik began to sign with his left hand.

“He’s my husband,” Freya said.

Halfdan burst through the leather curtain behind them. “Leif! Put that blade away before I use it to show you your own bowels!”

The youth called Leif shoved Erik’s knife aside and slipped his sword away. “Does the queen know about this?”

“She does now,” Halfdan said. “She wants to see them. Should I tell her that you kept her waiting?”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Leif said so softly it was almost a whisper. “Let’s all go see Her Highness together.”

Chapter 8. Queen

Halfdan held back the curtain and Leif strode through first. Freya exchanged a quick nod with Erik and they followed the youth into the next room with Wren and Halfdan close behind them. They emerged from the curtains into an audience chamber half the size of the dining hall behind them. Heavy iron bars filled the windows like rusting teeth, and the cold night air swirled in with the smells of the sea. Two huge iron braziers glowed full of red coals against the walls, forcing everyone who entered to stand between the fiery blasts when they approached the throne. And as much as she knew that she should be looking at the woman on that throne, Freya couldn’t help staring at the chair itself.

It was made of wood. The legs, the seat, the arms, the back, and each little carved bird and flower and crest and bear was pure, veined, grainy, stained wood. It was brown and red and black, polished and gleaming like bright steel and yet warm and vital like Katja’s eyes.

Katja. I kicked her. I kicked her in the face.

Freya blinked and focused on the queen. She was a middle-aged woman, her dark red hair streaked with soft grays. Her eyes were lined with age and worry, and painted black. Her lips were thin and tense, and painted red. Her hands clasped the arms of her throne, displaying her black-painted nails and silver rings studded with blood-red rubies.

The rest of her body was buried in ermine, a river of white and gray fur pouring down from her shoulders to her feet, except for a sliver of milky flesh running from her smooth throat down between the hidden swells of her breasts.

Freya stood between the braziers and felt the heat rolling up the sides of her body. She bowed her head slightly. “Lady Skadi, I’m Freya Nordasdottir, a huntress from Logarven.”

“Yes,” the queen said. “Halfdan says you’ve brought your plague-bitten sister to me.”

“We did. We took her to Gudrun in Denveller first, but she couldn’t help us.” Freya glanced back at Wren. “And she died. But before she went, she told us that Skadi of Hengavik might be able to cure my sister. So here we are.”

“You went to Hengavik?” The queen nodded. “Or what’s left of it?”

“We did. There was no one there but the dead. And the bones of the giant.”

Skadi smiled a little, and then a little more. “The bones of the giant?” She shook her head. “I watched that giant fall from the sky, its flesh all afire, a trail of smoke slashed across the heavens. When it struck the ground, I thought the world itself would shatter and swallow the entire city.”

Freya nodded. “I’m sure I will enjoy hearing that tale some other time, but right now my sister is a rabid beast in a black cell underground, and she needs your help.”

“My help? You want me to cure her?” Skadi curled her fingers into fists. “Don’t you think that if I had the power to cure the plague, I would have done it by now? Do you think I would have that hideous wall casting its shadow on my city?”

Freya felt the icy resolve in her heart begin to melt, dripping down her spine with fear and doubt. “I’ve brought Wren, Gudrun’s apprentice. She has the knowledge of every vala of Denveller, to help you.”

Skadi glanced at the girl in black. “Ah, so you were her last apprentice? You have my sympathy. I had the good sense to leave when I could. I suppose you had the good fortune that Gudrun died before she destroyed too much of your life.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” Wren said. “Except at the end.”

The queen nodded, and then frowned. “Logarven? Wasn’t there a vala out there as well?”

“There was,” Freya said. “She’s in your cell at this moment.”

Skadi’s brows rose in understanding. “It would seem our sisterhood has entered a rapid decline of late. And the reavers have gone as far east as Logarven. I suppose it would be asking too much to expect some good news these days.” She rubbed her forehead.

“My lady, do you know where the reavers came from?” Freya asked.

“Has Fenrir really returned?” Wren asked.

Skadi looked up and said, “Yes, I do know, and as to your question, little sister, the answer is yes. Fenrir lives.” The queen called for a drink and the tall girl with the long brown hair at her side poured her goblet of dark wine. “My apprentice, Thora,” the queen said as she took the cup and drank. The tall girl nodded to them curtly. She had sad, serious eyes that took no particular interest in the newcomers.

Skadi handed back the empty cup and said, “It was eight years ago when the skyship fell on Hengavik.”

“A ship?” Freya stared at her. “That thing was a ship, and it was built by people who sail the skies? We never heard anything about this in Logarven.”

The queen frowned. “Yes, I know. It was my order that no one speak of the ship outside of Hengavik. I didn’t want to create a panic with rumors of frost giants and dead gods falling from the heavens. I also didn’t want to risk scavengers and treasure hunters coming to loot the ship or to kidnap the two survivors. But I also knew that the Jarl of Hengavik didn’t have the wits or the strength to protect the ship for long, so I came here to Rekavik, to King Ivar, with a proposition. His vala was old, maybe even older than Gudrun, and a fool to boot. So I became his personal advisor and he brought the skyship survivors and many pieces of the ship itself here to Rekavik where he and I could study them. “

“What sort of people were they? The survivors, I mean,” Freya said. “Were they from Alba?”

Skadi shook her head dismissively. “No, they were from a land called Marrakesh, so far to the south in a place so hot that it never snows, even in winter. They had brown skin and black hair, and wore strange clothes, and spoke many strange languages, but the man spoke Yslander well enough. So when they recovered from their injuries, we began to learn from them. About their homeland and about their ship. At first, King Ivar wanted to build a skyship of his own, to sail to the far south and see this Marrakesh for himself. He dreamed of a fleet of Yslander ships sailing the skies so that we might explore and trade and make war as we did in the old days. But we didn’t have the tools or materials to build even one skyship. The southern woman explained how her country was full of great mines, and giant smithies called factories, and giant laboring beasts, and devices that not even I could imagine. All of these things are needed to build a skyship, and we have none of them.”

Freya nodded, hoping the queen would hurry along to the heart of her story so the huntress could escape the heat of the braziers. “I see. But, the plague?”

“Patience. I’m coming to that. Eventually, I suggested a different use for these foreigners and their machines. The engine that drove them across the sky is a machine that spins, like a mill, so I reasoned that we could use the engine as a drill to tunnel down into the earth.”

Gods! Gudrun was right. Skadi did want to dig up the ancient demons!

Freya asked innocently, “To find iron and silver?”

“Oh no, I had far greater ambitious than mere ore,” Skadi said. “We would drill into the base of Mount Esja to release the molten rock into the bay and the southern fields. The heat would drive back more of the ice, and the new land would give us more homes beside the water, and the fertile soil would strengthen our crops. With one stroke, we would make Rekavik into a thriving paradise, the greatest city in the world. I even secretly dreamed we might one day grow trees again here in Ysland. The king agreed to the plan, and the foreigners agreed to help us. So for two years, our smiths worked to create the pieces of the new engine, Ivar’s Drill. When it was built on the slopes of Mount Esja, it stood taller than Gudrun’s tower. And in the months that followed we drilled deeper and deeper into the mountain.”

“The den of the wolf,” Wren whispered. “When the Allfather defeated Fenrir, the beast was sealed in a prison that had no door, deep in the earth. But no one knows where the den of the wolf is.”

“Yes, well, we know where it is now.” Skadi ran one white hand down the fur trim of her robe from her neck to her chest. “After months of drilling, the foreman sent word that he had found rock walls so hot they glowed red. We thought the drill was about to tap the river of molten rock so Ivar and I went to oversee the work that day. We had grown quite close over those years, and we married just before the drilling began.”

“And then?” Freya prompted her.

“And then, we sat on the slopes of Mount Esja and listened to the drilling, waiting to hear that the magma had been found, waiting to see that river of golden fire pour out of the mountain and down into the bay,” Skadi said. “It was late in the afternoon when the drilling stopped. The machine itself stood on the slope where we were, with only its grinding arm reaching down into the darkness. Ivar and I stood beside the pit, beside the machine, and we listened. We waited to hear the foreman tell us he had found the magma. Instead, all we heard were screams.”

She broke off, her eyes straying to the girl at her side, and then out across the faces watching her. “Ivar told me to get back as he drew his sword. The screams grew louder. The workmen all stood at the edge of the pit with tools and ropes. Some wanted to go down to help their friends, and others wanted to run, but they stayed at the king’s side. They stayed, right up to the end. The beast came up from the tunnel, and, well, you’ve seen them. Fenrir is a reaver, like the others, only worse. He’s larger, and darker, and faster. He’s…”

Skadi swallowed and gripped the arms of her chair tightly. “Ivar ordered Leif to take me back to the city, and we fled. Over my shoulder I saw the demon tearing the men to pieces, scattering their limbs on the mountainside and spraying their blood into the air. I saw Ivar fall, and I saw the beast lift his broken body to feed on it.” She pressed her lips tightly together and stared down into one of the braziers.

“When we returned to the city, I called out the house carls to kill the beast,” Leif said. “We searched the mountain for hours, but found no trace of Fenrir, and no survivors either.”

“Yes, and a great pity that you didn’t stay to fight the beast when you had the chance,” Halfdan said. “Or Ysland would have surely been rid of its vermin that day.”

The black-haired youth and the bearded man exchanged vicious glares, but neither one moved or spoke.

The queen cleared her throat. “In the months that followed, we began to hear the stories of a creature attacking the farms in the north and the fishing villages along the coast. And soon it became clear that there was more than one reaver running loose. The plague had begun to spread. Almost every day we would hear of another village completely destroyed by the demons. So we built up our walls and sharpened our spears, and now we live at war with Fenrir and his beasts. Halfdan keeps our walls safe, and young Leif leads one of our war parties to patrol the hills. The reavers give us a wide berth now, and we have few attacks near the city. They seem to prefer easier kills.”

The queen fell silent for a moment, and then looked up abruptly at Wren. “You have Gudrun’s ring? The rinegold of Denveller?”

Freya stepped back so that Wren could stand before the queen between the braziers. The girl said, “Yes, I do. I’ve been learning to speak to Gudrun and the other dead valas of Denveller. It’s a very strange thing, seeing their faces and hearing their voices all the time, but I suppose I’ll get used to it eventually.” The girl paused to glance down at the ring on her finger, and then she looked up through her tangled, dirty hair. “Do you want the ring, my lady? Would it help you cure the plague?”

Skadi smiled as she gazed down at the slender girl, and for a moment Freya thought she might say yes, that she might take the ring. And she felt the sting of knowing that there was no such ring for the valas of Logarven, as there wasn’t for most of the small villages of Ysland. The rinegold was rare and precious, and greedily sought by both valas and thieves.

But instead the queen sighed and shook her head. “No, that ring is for you, for Denveller. I’m already wearing the ring of Hengavik, given to me by my second mistress, Sigrid. I don’t think I could manage two of them. But…” Her eyes widened. “…but there is another ring that might help us. The ring of Rekavik is very old, perhaps older than all the others in Ysland. And now we know that the den of Fenrir was just to east of Rekavik under Mount Esja.”

Wren stepped forward eagerly. “Then perhaps the vala of Rekavik, an ancient one, perhaps the first one, maybe she knew about the den! Maybe she was here when the Allfather sealed Fenrir under the mountain!”

Skadi nodded slowly. “Maybe.”

“Where is the ring?” Wren asked. She looked from the vala queen to her apprentice and back again.

“When the last vala of Rekavik died, her apprentice was too young to wear the ring.” Skadi gestured to the girl Thora beside her. “So the king took the ring for himself. I didn’t think it wise or proper, but it was his right. I thought that when Thora was older she would take the ring, but he never offered to return it. And Ivar died before I could ask the question of him again.”

Freya shivered despite the heat. “So the ring of Rekavik is lost?”

The queen shook her head. “I thought as much myself, until last autumn. We hadn’t seen or heard of Fenrir in many months, but one day a group of farmers came into the city, describing a giant reaver that attacked their wagons on the road from the northeast. Leif and his hunters went out to search for him, and they found him.”

“We found him in the hills to the east of Mount Esja,” Leif said softly, his eyes flashing with a cruel bloodlust. “I had twenty young carls with me, all fast runners and faster blades, and we chased the demon up into a rocky crevasse in the mountainside. We thought we had him trapped in the dark ravine. But it was he who trapped us. The demon climbed the walls, circled around us, and fell on us from the rear.”

The youth hesitated and licked his lips. “He tore two of my men in half before we realized what was happening, and soon the ground was swamped with blood and flesh and piss. The screams echoed so loudly in that place that my ears rang with meaningless noise. We could barely stand on the slick rock, and every time the demon killed a man he would fling the body at us, knocking down two or three men at a time. But we stood our ground and cut the beast, made him bleed, made him howl, and after a few minutes, we made him run as well. We stood our ground and we taught that animal to fear us. We earned more than mere songs that day. It was an hour for greatness, for glory.”

Freya watched the youth’s face as he spoke, his eyes wide and fixed on her though he seemed to be staring straight through her. His lips barely moved, and a strange smile lurked in the corners of his lips, twitching as though eager to blaze across his face with wild and furious joy at the memory of the battle.

“Thirteen died,” Leif said. “All in a moment, a few terrible breaths, a few last heartbeats. Fenrir shreds and grinds men as a miller grinds grain, and he paints the earth in blood wherever he goes. He is a flesh eater and a blood drinker. And even the survivors are victims. Two of my men were bitten, and began to change on the march home. I killed them myself.”

“The ring, Leif,” the queen said loudly.

“Yes, the ring.” Leif blinked and the dark revelry faded from his eyes. “I saw it on his finger, as did my men. Fenrir wears scraps of clothing around his shoulders and waist, like most reavers, but his arms were bare and we could easily see the golden ring on his claw. It shone in the light against his dark fur. He must have taken it from the king, along with the silver torques he wears on his arms. The reavers seem to like silver. But the gold was unmistakable.”

Freya found it all too easy to imagine the demon, a reaver larger than all the ones she had seen before, tearing grown men to pieces, the air sick with blood and piss and fear. She steadied her hands by gripping her knives. “Lady Skadi, is there really nothing you can do for my sister?”

The woman on the throne shook her head. “I can ply her with herbs to keep her calm, to make her sleep, to dull her madness. But nothing more. I have tried everything I know to cure the plague and I have failed at every turn.”

“But with the king’s ring, the rinegold of Rekavik?” Freya stepped forward again. “Do you believe there is some knowledge in that ring that can help my sister?”

“It’s possible, but I can make no promises. The ring of Rekavik holds the souls of countless wise women, and if the reavers once roamed these lands in ancient times, then one of those dead valas may know how to cure them.”

Freya nodded. “All right then. I’ll go. I’ll get the ring for you. I’ll do it.”

Erik gently took her arm and began to sign, but she turned away to face the queen, already knowing that her husband wouldn’t want her to go, and would at the least insist on her staying behind while he went on alone.

“It’s very hard to find Fenrir,” the queen said. “And almost impossible to face him and live. Leif’s hunters were all deadly swordsmen and they fell like children, helpless, before the demon. I will not send any more of my warriors to that end.”

“I’m not asking you to send anyone else. But I’m no warrior, and I’m not going to fight this demon in some sort of glorious battle,” Freya said. “I’m just going to hunt it down like any other animal. Stalk it, snare it, and spear it.”

“That’s not much of a plan,” said Halfdan.

“I know.” Freya nodded. “But it usually works just fine.”

Chapter 9. Drill

When their audience was over, the queen’s apprentice Thora led the three visitors to another wing of the estate, to a pair of rooms furnished with very large mattresses and very soft blankets. Thora gestured to the rooms in silence, her dark and haunted eyes staring at them each in turn. She looked exhausted, as though she’d been crying all night and day and had only stopped because her body simply couldn’t cry anymore.

“You’re going to hunt Fenrir.” The apprentice spoke very softly, her eyes straying toward the floor. “You’re going to kill him.”

Freya nodded.

“The reavers are victims, you know,” Thora said. “They all are. They were people once. Our people. Our families.”

Freya nodded again. “I know they were, just like my sister. Did you lose someone to the reavers?”

Thora nodded and whispered, “Yes, I did. And he didn’t deserve this. None of them did.” Then she pulled her black shawl tightly around her shoulders and strode swiftly down the hall. Freya watched her go, wondering what the other girl had been like before she lost everyone.

She was probably just like me. Content. Even happy. Looking forward to the future. And now look at her.

Wren said her goodnights and drew the curtain to her room, and Freya followed Erik into theirs. Starlight spilled through the barred window onto the bed, and thunder rumbled across the sky as the soft patter of icy rain began to fall on the heavy turf roof.

Freya and her husband shed their clothing, letting their knives and coats and shirts and trousers all slip to the floor in furry, leathery piles. She watched him move to the bed, his bare chest and arms distorted by the shadows, his muscles rippling like a snow lion’s in the night. Erik stretched out on top of the blankets and closed his eyes.

Freya paused, then untied the tight cotton stay from around her small breasts and let the cloth fall away. She walked slowly onto the mattress and stood over her naked husband as she stared out the window at the storm growling and pouring on the dark city outside. The cold air swirled over her skin and she felt the gooseflesh pricking down her back.

The black marks inked into her arms seemed to ripple and come alive in the shadows, and she ran her fingers over them. Katja had made them, working the ink into her skin with a single needle, one prick at a time, to create the ancient icons for bears, and elk, and eagles, and snakes, and everything that Freya had ever hunted and killed. And woven around the black animal heads were the runes, the words of strength and faith and health and luck that her sister had given her, years and years ago.

Warm fingers played on her ankles and she knelt down on Erik, feeling the heat rising from his bare skin as his hands traveled up her legs and belly and breasts. She sighed and closed her eyes as her husband gently massaged her tired muscles, and she felt his thighs begin to rock beneath her. Freya looked down at him, at the faint smile on his lips and the icy blue glimmers of his eyes. She said, “You know, there are times, not often, but sometimes, when I wish I could hear your voice, not much, but just to know what it would sound like. To hear you laugh.”

He nodded seriously.

“Or maybe sing?”

He shook with silent laughter as he plucked at her nipples.

“Or just… say my name.”

Erik took one hand back to sign, “Me too. Sometimes.”

“But back there, tonight.” Freya sighed again as his hands pressed hard into her thighs and buttocks, and he began shifting her down lower onto his hips. “Tonight, back there, I wish you could have spoken for me. Just that one time. Just because… seeing Katja like that was just, you know, I kicked her.”

Her lip trembled and she felt the corners of her eyes burning. “I kicked her in the head. In the face. I kicked her so hard. I looked at her and it wasn’t her. Not anymore. And I was scared, and I wanted to get out, and I kicked her in the face, and… a part of me wished that she would just die right there.”

The tears spilled down her cheeks, and Erik reached up to pull her down against his chest, and she huddled there against his warm skin.

“I wished she was dead, so it would all end, so we could go home.” She lay very still in her husband’s arms, staring at the wall. There was a blazing knot in her chest and she forced herself to keep breathing. “And then that bastard Leif made me think she was dead for a moment, and as much as I wanted to kill him for it, I was almost grateful to him. And then I told Skadi I would… that I would hunt that thing for her. For her ring. So that maybe she could help Katja. Maybe. All for a maybe. I’m going to hunt a demon for a maybe.”

Erik’s hand reached out in front of her and he signed, “ We. We will hunt it, together.”

“I know. We. I just keep thinking that soon it will be over. When we get to Gudrun. When we get to Skadi. But it just keeps going.” She whispered, “I don’t want to keep going, Erik. I want to go home. I want it to be like it was before. And what if we can’t save her? What if we have to drag Katja home and lock her up like that man in the mill with his brother? I can’t do that to her. I won’t do that to her. I’ll kill her first.”

Freya gasped quietly as the pain in her chest grew tighter, and then she let go, and she sobbed a little. She wiped her eyes and said, “I will kill her. I’ll do it. I won’t ask you to. I’ll do it myself. I’ll kill Katja, when the time comes.”

Erik wrapped his arms around her and kissed her head. Freya closed her eyes and felt her body relaxing one muscle at a time, the aches in her chest and back fading gradually, the tension in her neck and shoulders unbinding bit by bit, until she finally fell asleep.

She awoke in the dark, still lying naked on Erik’s bare body on top of the blankets with the freezing rain drumming on the roof. He was snoring.

Freya shivered and climbed off her husband, smiling in the dark as she felt his erection rubbing along her leg. Fumbling in the dark, she peeled back the blankets and crawled under them beside Erik, and closed her eyes.

A woman’s wail rose outside in the night.

Freya opened her eyes, listening through the noise of the rain. The wail faded away and did not return, but another sound drew her gaze back to the doorway. A familiar soft grunt came from the hall. She stood and crossed the room, feeling the cool air moving over her warm bare skin, and she pulled back the curtain to look out into the corridor.

A dozen paces away she saw the queen’s apprentice Thora pressed up against the wall with her skirts held high around her waist. Her legs were hidden by the youth kneeling before her, his long black hair obscuring the darkness between her legs. Her fingernails dug into his shoulders, her small white teeth biting down on her lip as she quivered, every muscle in her body straining to remain perfectly still. And slowly, the youth on the floor stopped moving his head, and he sighed.

That’s Leif! He’s a bold one, right out in the hallway like this. But good for her, I suppose. It looks like she took what she wanted from him.

Thora opened her pale lids and for a moment the two women stared at each other over Leif’s head, and Freya saw the flat, dead emptiness in the apprentice’s eyes. The brown-haired girl leaned her head back against the wall, no longer biting her lip, no longer straining, without any hint of joy or release or pleasure in her face. She just stood there, holding Leif’s head to her bare flesh, staring at Freya with no expression at all.

For a moment, the huntress wanted to go to her, to say something, but Thora lowered her eyes and turned away.

Freya closed the curtain and went back to bed, crawled under the blankets, and was soon asleep. In the morning, she found Erik just as eager as he had been in his sleep, and she took her pleasure of him. He was still groggy when she started, so she led him through the motions, smiling at how naked his expressions were as he shivered and grunted beneath her.

Afterward, they dressed and left the room, and found Wren loitering in the hall with a strange pout on her lip. The girl fell into step behind them. “I’ve been thinking.”

“Instead of talking?” Erik signed.

Freya smiled and said, “About what?”

“That I should stay here and keep an eye on Katja for you, while you’re out hunting. I mean, if the Allfather wanted me to come with you, then I would, of course, but there’s been a shortage of divine signs lately that the good lord Woden wants me to see the natural beauty of Mount Esja anytime soon, and so I was thinking-”

Freya laughed. “Of course you’re not coming with us. And thank you for offering to watch my sister. I’ll feel much better knowing you’re here to keep her safe.”

“Oh. Right, good, then that’s settled.” Wren smiled nervously.

“Something else on your mind?”

“No. Well, not much. Nothing of importance, I’m sure. Just a noise I heard in the night. It sounded like a woman crying, and not in a happy way.”

Freya nodded. “I think I heard it too. Maybe the reavers killed her husband.”

“Maybe. It’s just that, well, it sounded like it was inside the castle.”

They found the dining hall after a moment of peering down the wrong corridors, and they nodded their good mornings to the handful of guards standing around the smoking fire pits with their bowls of mash and crusts of bread. Wren fetched a few bowls of their own and they ate standing over one of the smoky pits apart from the men of Rekavik.

Freya and Erik finished quickly and let Wren see to the bowls, said their farewells, and strode out through the cloak room and through the iron door out into the bright morning sunlight in the cobbled courtyard. Leif was leaning against the wall just outside the door, and when they stepped out, he pushed off from the wall and glared at them.

“I’m to be your guide on Mount Esja, and farther if needs be. The queen’s orders. But let’s be clear. This is your hunting trip, not mine. I don’t plan to die with you out there,” he said quietly. There was no fierce arrogance in his eyes or voice. He looked tired, even scared, which made him look even younger than before.

Freya let her eyes flick down to the youth’s sword, reliving his words from last night, reliving the sight of his blade flying at her throat. Last night he had seemed vicious and deadly, but now he was something else entirely.

Maybe he’d just come from an argument last night. Or he lost a friend. Or he was just scared at seeing a reaver in the castle cell. He’s lost dozens of friends to the reavers over the years. So all right. Today is a new day. Time to start over.

“That’s fine,” she said. “We appreciate any help you can offer.”

“Yes, I’m sure you do, but don’t expect much help from me.” Leif sniffed and turned away, and over his shoulder he said, “If we do find the demon, I’ll probably just let him kill you.”

Or maybe he’s still a prick.

“I want to stab him,” Erik signed. “Do you want to stab him?”

Freya nodded.

The hunters shouldered their spears and the three of them marched out into the streets and down the smaller lanes to the eastern seawall overlooking the bay. A grim-faced guard watched them step out through an iron door onto the gravel beach where the low tide had left a field of seaweed gleaming wetly in the cold air.

The black water of the bay sloshed up on the shore flecked with green-white foam and froth. The beach was only a few paces wide between the base of the seawall and the edge of the inky water, and the gravel sloped down sharply between the two. Leif led the way along the strand back toward the southern side of the bay and Freya noted the armed men, all massive and scarred house carls, leaning on the wall above them every fifty paces.

“This is a little faster than going back out the main gate,” Leif said. “But only at low tide, of course.”

“And at high tide?” Freya asked.

The youth pointed to the seawall beside them and Freya saw the dirty line of green and black slime several hand-spans above the wall’s base. “Oh.”

“Every now and then, a reaver will try to come at the city this way,” Leif said. “But we always hear them on the gravel, or splashing in the water. By the time they’re close enough to see, there are at least twenty men on the wall waiting for them, and then it’s over quickly enough.”

They rounded the base of the point and turned east toward Mount Esja, which rose gently from the nearby hills from a very wide base to a very distant peak. The frosted grass and scrub only rose a third of the way up its slopes, shifting to broad white sheets of gleaming snow for the second third, and from there up it was all black stone and gray ash. The summit exhaled a lazy trail of smoke into the cloudless sky.

For two hours they hiked along an old footpath overgrown with grass and weeds, and Freya kept her eyes on the ground and her ears on the wind, searching. From time to time, Erik would point out a track or a trace, a bit of fur or a depression in the frozen mud, but most looked and smelled old. And the farther they climbed into the hills, closer to Esja and farther from the water, the warmer the air and the ground became.

“How many reavers are there altogether?” Freya asked.

“A few hundred, at least.” Leif did not turn back to speak and his soft voice was muffled by the wind. “They run in packs, and sleep in dens. There are two or three dens on the northeast face of Esja, and many more farther north and east beyond Thorskull where the deer and bear hunting is better. There are also five or six dens to the south near Gulbringa, which is probably why we haven’t heard from Torsberg in a long while. We’ve had refugees from all over with all sorts of stories over the last few years. Usually the reavers just kill the people they find. Only a handful get bitten and survive long enough to turn.”

“Still, hundreds of reavers…” Freya frowned at the distant slopes of Esja. “Where should we start our search? Are we going to the ravine where you fought Fenrir the last time?”

“No. The queen told me to show you the pit where the beast was found.” At this, the youth did look back for a moment. His mouth was hidden by the collar of his jacket but Freya could see how he narrowed his eyes, and she wondered if he was merely squinting against the light shining off the sparkling bay icebergs, or if he might actually be smiling at them.

Shortly before noon, Leif pointed out a cluster of purplish-red barberry bushes and they made a light meal of the little fruits. Freya ate sparingly as she gazed down over the distant bay to the tiny walled city, half-hidden by the fog creeping in off the sea.

“Something wrong?” Erik signed.

She shook head and said nothing.

It took another two hours of steady hiking up the steep slopes of Esja, angling ever northward across the loose, ashy shale, before Leif paused again and pointed to a dark shape jutting out from the face of the mountain. “Ivar’s Drill.”

It was a dim and distant shape, a gray figure leaning out into the cool empty air from a shallow depression in the ground. Everything was silent and still. And Freya saw only a spear of rock that would take another half hour to reach, and so on they marched. As they drew closer, Freya began to see the details of the drill. It was massive steel drum, with a tangle of what looked to be pots and pans poking out of the top. Six massive steel legs reached out from the drum to stand on the rocky slope, holding the machine steady. And when they finally reached the edge of the pit, the huntress looked down and saw the long steel arm of the drill reaching down into the darkness.

She went over to the closest leg of the machine and scraped at the rust on it. The drill’s feet were nailed into the mountainside and rust-colored stains had trickled down the rock face from the feet, looking like dried blood on the ground. She looked out to the west again, and in the distance she could still see the faint gray blot of Rekavik surrounded on three sides by the dark waters of the bay.

It started here. So close they could see the city. But the demon was buried here all this time, all these ages it was right here beneath their feet. A real demon, imprisoned by Woden himself.

How many times did the people of Rekavik look up at Mount Esja without a care in the world, without any idea that Fenrir was sleeping right in front of them? And how many other monsters might there be buried in the earth, or under the sea, or in the sky right now, just waiting for some fool to wake them again?

A snap of Erik’s fingers drew her attention back to the pit. He signed, “Has anyone ever gone down there?”

“What the hell is he doing?” Leif asked, jerking his chin at the taller man.

“He wants to know if anyone has ever gone down into the tunnel before,” Freya said. “And so do I.”

“Of course not.” Leif hooked his thumbs in his belt and stared down into the darkness. “I’ve only been back here twice since Fenrir came out, and not for long, and not to go down there.”

The huntress stared down into the darkness with him, the wind whipping through their long hair, silver-gold beside raven black. “I understand. It’s all right to be afraid.”

The pale youth glared at her, but then he glanced at the hulking Erik and sauntered away along the pit’s edge. “So, are you going down there?”

“Yes. There may be something in there that can tell us about Fenrir. What he eats and how he sleeps.”

Leif snorted. “He eats men and he sleeps on a pile of bones.”

Freya ignored him and looked up at Erik. “Ready?”

He nodded and began shuffling down the steep slope of the pit to the tunnel’s mouth, where he rested one hand on the shaft of the drill and paused. His fingers said, “I can hear something in there.”

Freya knelt beside him and placed her hand on the smooth rock wall of the tunnel, feeling the sharp grooves left by the drill. There were no shudders in the mountain, no vibrations telling tales of giant beasts moving about in the darkness below. “I don’t hear it. Is it like breathing? Do you think it’s Fenrir?”

Erik shook his head and signed, “It’s very faint. I’m not surprised you can’t hear it. I’m not sure, but I think it sounds like flies. If there is something down there, it’s probably dead.”

Chapter 10. Bullies

Wren huddled by the door of Katja’s cell. A light snow was falling on the city and beginning to lie thick upon the frozen mud and dead grass of the courtyard. Men crunched their way back and forth across the roads and the yards, but the snow fell in perfect silence. With an old blanket wrapped over her coat, Wren almost felt warm. At first when she sat down against the stone wall beside the cell door, the cold of the stone had nearly drained the heat from her body, but now the stone was warm and the blanket was warm and the stiff ache in her back was fading. She sighed and watched her breath twist and swirl in the chilly air.

After two hours of sitting in the snow, she sat up and peered around the corner at the courtyard and the iron door in the castle wall. Two of the older guards stood near the door by a small brazier that held a crackling peat fire. “You know, my lord,” she said with an upward glance at the gray sky, “I have often thought it was foolish to do a foolish thing, even for a good reason, and it seems to me that sitting here in the cold to protect a locked door is quite a foolish thing. I mean, had you seen fit to fill the hearts of the people with fear and hate toward poor Katja, then yes, I could see the honor and purpose in staying here. But you obviously have other designs for Rekavik today. This gentle snow, for instance. That’s a very nice touch, I think. Good work, my lord. I shall celebrate your wisdom over there by that warm fire.”

She scrambled to her feet, tugged her blanket more tightly around herself, and trudged through the soft snow to the guards and the crackling, sparking pile of burning moss beside them. The men nodded in greeting and she nodded back. Holding her hands over the fire, Wren felt the blood and the feeling creeping back into her flesh.

In no time at all she was smiling and talking cheerily to the two grim-faced men-at-arms, who seemed content to listen and nod in reply from time to time. She told them about her journey from Denveller, and the frogs on Delver Island, and the giant carcass in Hengavik, and she was about to describe the miller and his brother when a stream of glaring, bearded men stomped through the doorway, frowned at the guards, and stomped across the courtyard and into the castle.

Wren blinked. “Who were they?”

“No one,” the shorter guard said. “Ragnar Svensson and his friends. Just a few idiots who like to complain to the queen about the walls and the fishing and the weather. They show up about once a month to demand that Skadi fix everything with her magic, and she tells them where they can stick their whining, and they go home again. Hmph. They’re a bit early this month. Usually they wait until the new moon to make their noise. Bunch of jackasses.”

“Early?” Wren looked from the castle door to the corner of the building that hid the stairs down to Katja’s cell. She wrapped her hands up in the folds of her blanket and paced slowly and quietly back along the castle wall to the cell and descended the steps.

Wren peered in through the narrow, barred window in the steel door, but the cell was utterly dark except for the tiny patch of light falling through the window, which Wren’s head was now blocking. So she saw nothing inside. “Katja? Are you awake? Can you understand me? Katja? It’s Wren. Well, you probably don’t remember me, especially now that you’re a ravenous monster and all, but I’m a friend of your sister’s, and I’m going to keep you safe, all right? You just need to stay quiet, just like you are now, and everything will be fine. You’ll see. The Allfather won’t abandon us now, not after coming so far. Journeys like this one, they don’t end in the middle. They go on and on, like in the old sagas. Sometimes they go on for years, but they always end the right way. You didn’t survive all this time just to die in some cell, in the middle of the story, and I-”

Wren paused to frown. “Unless of course, this might not be your story at all. It could be my story. In that case, maybe you will die, and it’ll make me sad, so sad that I can’t cure the plague until a handsome young man comes along to make me smile again.”

She smiled at the cold door. “But no, that won’t happen. You and I aren’t exactly close, so it wouldn’t make me that sad if you died. I mean, I would be sad, Allfather knows I’d hate for anything to happen to you, but I can’t say it would break my heart more than anyone else’s death. After all, we’ve never even met really. Never even spoken.”

The young vala hunched down on the cold steps for a moment to blow some warmth into her thin fingers. “Then again, maybe this is your sister’s story. Oh, now that makes more sense. After all, she’s the one on the long journey and actually doing all the work, isn’t she? And if you died, it really would break her heart, I suppose. She might fall into a black state indeed, full of sorrow, maybe even starving herself in a tower by the sea, refusing to see her own poor Erik. Or she might go berserk and kill us all, kill every last person in Rekavik and burn the city to the ground, and then spend the rest of her life wandering the earth to repent her crimes and earn her way back into Woden’s good graces. Aye, I can see that story well enough. Worthy of a saga.”

Again she frowned and picked at her lip. “So I suppose, if you do die, I’ll have to leave the city. I mean, I’d hate to die in Freya’s blood-fury. But then, maybe I could find her again, years later, and help her atone for her crimes and-”

A hand jerked her back from the door and Wren tripped and fell down hard on the stone steps behind her. She hopped up, rubbing her rear and glaring at the four men standing in the snow above her. They wore sealskin coats without a trace of fur among them, and each of them clutched an axe or a hammer in one hand.

The men from the courtyard.

She pressed her lips tightly together for a moment before saying to the leader, “You must be Ragnar. I think you’re lost. The door to the castle is back around the other side.” She jerked her head toward the main door as she brought her hands together under her blanket and unwound her sling from her wrist.

“Get out of the way, girl.” The speaker was a huge old bear with saggy jowls and thin white hair on his head and thick white brows over his squinting eyes. He had a deep voice and he spoke with a soft, unwavering drone. “We’ve come for the beast.”

“She’s not a beast,” Wren said. “She’s a woman, a vala from the east. She’s just sick, poisoned. But we’re going to cure it. Skadi and me. I’m the, well, the vala of Denveller. We’re going to find a cure for it just as soon as Freya comes back.”

“Freya? Is that the woman Leif left with this morning? “ Ragnar shook his head a little. “You won’t be seeing her again.”

“Why not?”

“No one comes back from the north. Even the warriors who go south lose half their numbers each time. Your friends will be dead by the end of the day.”

“As the Allfather wills,” Wren said. “But Katja stays here. She’s not hurting anyone. She’s locked up. Can’t you see that?”

“She’s got the plague. She’s one of those things now. An animal. A killer.”

“No!” Wren shrugged her blanket off her shoulder so they could see the loaded sling in her hand.

The men chuckled.

“Get her out of there,” Ragnar said quietly.

One of the men knelt down at the side of the stairwell and reached down toward Wren, but she whipped her sling around and smashed his fingers away. The man yanked his bleeding hand back with a hiss and he clutched his broken fingers to his chest. Wren kept her sling spinning in front of her. “I promised to protect her.”

“And I promise she’ll be dead in a few moments.” Ragnar hefted his axe and started down the steps toward her.

There were only six steps and no room at the bottom for a second person, and as soon as the old man had taken his second step, Wren swung her sling at his face. He took the blow on his fist and then raised his axe to strike her with the butt of its bone handle.

“Ragnar!” Halfdan shoved through the men and grabbed the head of the raised axe. The two of them struggled over the weapon for a moment and Halfdan lost his grip, leaving Ragnar off-balance on the stairs. Wren grabbed the walls on either side of the sunken stairs and hurled herself up onto the snowy grass just as Ragnar tumbled down into the bottom of the steps at the foot of the steel door.

Finding her sling empty, she grabbed a stone from the pouch on her belt and lurched up to her knees, but Ragnar’s three friends hadn’t moved. They all leaned back, arms folded over their chests, axes standing in the snow against their legs. They were frowning down at Ragnar. The old man groaned and tried to push himself up, but he had fallen at an awkward angle into the stone well at the bottom of the steps and his legs were wedged against the wall under his body.

“You!” Halfdan shoved one of the silent three. “Get him out of there.”

The man took his time, lingering to give Halfdan a few dirty looks and to make it plain that he wasn’t afraid of the burly guard, but he did go down the steps and he hauled Ragnar up off the floor and helped the older man back up to the frozen earth.

Halfdan grabbed the man’s shirt and yanked him forward. “That girl in there is Skadi’s prisoner, and Skadi says she doesn’t die. Understand?”

Ragnar tried to shove himself free, but Halfdan’s huge fist remained buried in his shirt. Ragnar said, “She’s no girl anymore, she’s one of them!”

“That’s right, she’s got the plague,” Halfdan said. “And the queen’s going to cure the damn thing, and to make a cure she needs a beast to test it on. So either you leave that girl in there, or we can send you out into the hills to find another one on your own.”

“Look at you, thinking you’re somebody because your cousin was king. Well, Ivar’s dead now, isn’t he? And you’re nobody.” Ragnar struggled with the warrior again and this time managed to get his shirt free and he limped back a few steps. He spat in the grass. “And the only cure for the plague is a blade through the neck.”

Halfdan nodded. “Maybe. I’ll keep that in mind if you ever get bit. Or if I think you’ve been bit. Now get out.” He looked at the others. “All of you, get out.”

The men rocked slowly from foot to foot, shifting their weight and casting dark glances at one another, but they all turned and trudged back toward the castle gate. Wren avoided the eyes of the man whose hand she broke, and when they were all gone around the corner of the castle, she dropped to the ground to sit on the side of the stairs and blew out a long breath.

“You all right?” Halfdan shuffled a little closer and squinted down at the steel door of the cell.

“As fine as fine can be,” she said. “I just hope Freya comes back soon with that ring. It’s exhausting being this brave all the time.”

Chapter 11. Flies

Freya looked at the huge drill on its rusting steel legs. Inside its body she could see chambers and boxes, tubes and strings, all made of different hues of steel and copper and tin. She tapped her spear on the long shaft of the drill and listened to the sound echoing down into the tunnel. The machine’s position on the slope made it lean out at a precarious angle, made all the more precarious by the crumbling appearance of the steel legs gripping the mountain’s face. The tunnel struck downward at the same vicious angle, its walls ribbed and grooved by the mechanical drill’s passing.

“It’s going to be hard to climb down there,” she said. “And even harder to climb out. We should have brought a rope.”

“We have one.” Leif strode across the pit to the engine and opened a small metal door, and pulled out a length of rope. “They used this to lower the workers into the tunnel. The machine lowered them down and pulled them out again, but since it’s broken now, we’ll have to do the lifting the old fashioned way.”

Freya smiled. “Well, you’re the smallest of us, and the lightest. Are you volunteering to be lowered down there?”

Leif frowned. “I’m not going down there. You’re the hunters. So hunt already.”

Erik took the rope, pulling all of it free from the little drum inside the machine and letting it spill across the floor of the pit. Then he tied one end to the engine and tossed the rest of it down the tunnel. He looked at Freya and signed, “I’ll be quick.”

“You’ll be careful,” she said.

Erik grinned as he took hold of the rope in both hands and climbed slowly down into the darkness.

“How does he plan to see anything down there?” Leif asked. “The sun is at the wrong angle. It’ll be black as death in that hole.”

“He doesn’t need to see anything. It’s a tunnel, in a straight line, right? He just needs to follow it down and then let his ears and nose and hands tell him the rest.”

Leif stood at the lip of the tunnel, frowning. “I don’t hear any flies.”

“I don’t care what you don’t hear. Erik is a very good listener.”

“I suppose he’d have to be since he can’t speak for himself.” Leif grinned at her. “What on earth do you see in him? He’s an ox. An overgrown imbecile, wiggling his fingers like some madman. Don’t tell me there aren’t any better men in Logarven.”

Freya lashed out with her foot, but the youth leapt back, grinning. She turned her attention back to the hole. “He’s smarter than you.”

Leif laughed. “What makes you so sure?”

“He’s never been stupid enough to make me angry at him.”

Leif’s smile faded.

They stood in silence, Freya watching the tension on the rope as it shuddered in the dark tunnel, and Leif gazing out at the desolate mountainside. After a few minutes the rope went slack and fell to the ground.

“Erik? Shake the rope once if you’re all right,” Freya called out. And a moment later, a limp shiver rippled up through the rope.

“What do you think he’s going to find down there?” Leif asked. “Fenrir’s mausoleum full of demon statues and silver and pearls?”

“More likely he’ll find a broken claw, some fur, a gnawed bone, or maybe some old scat.”

Leif sighed and rolled his eyes. “The glory and the glamour of your trade are truly overwhelming.”

The rope snapped back up and began shuddering gently, and Freya could hear the soft padding of Erik’s boots on the tunnel floor. It took the hunter longer to climb up than it did to climb down, and when he finally emerged into the light Freya’s back was sore from leaning over the lip of the hole for so long. Erik hauled himself up the last few steps and sauntered away from the tunnel, and sat down in a heap. His face shone with sweat as he massaged his hands together. After a moment he signed, “That’s a very deep hole.”

Freya smiled as she knelt beside him. “I believe you. What’s at the bottom?”

“Not much. I found where the shaft ends at the drill head. It’s enormous. But there’s no chamber down there for a demon. All I found were some rough pockets in the walls,” he signed. He untied a small cord on the side of his belt and held up the treasure dangling from the looped end. “This was in one of those pockets.”

Freya sniffed the ancient dung. “No scent. No way to know what left it there.”

“What about your flies?” Leif asked. He remained at his post on the top of the pit, showing no interest in coming any closer to the hunters and their discovery. “Did you find the flies that you heard in there?”

“I heard them,” Erik signed. “But I didn’t feel any moving around in there.”

“Well, maybe there’s something more interesting inside this.” Freya took the dung from the string and crumbled it in her bare hands. It fell to pieces, some as fine as sand, and much of it falling through her fingers to the ground.

Erik picked up one of the fallen pieces. He raised his hand to sign, but a fat red fly buzzed up from the brown lump in his hand. The fly whizzed about Erik’s face, and he waved it away. Then he gasped and recoiled, pulling his hand to his belly and rubbing it hard with his other hand. Freya frowned, drew her knife, and after a moment of watching the buzzing fly, she slapped it down against the ground with the flat of her blade and crushed it. When she took her knife away, there was a large red smear on the stone.

“Let’s see it.” She held out her hand to her husband, and he reluctantly showed her the angry red welt on the side of his palm. “Ugh. Bloodflies. Gross old dung-dwelling bloodflies. Next time, you should bring me some scat with pearls in it.”

Erik smiled.

“What is it? What happened?” Leif called down from his perch.

“A mighty battle,” Freya said. She winked at her husband. “But he’ll live to fight another day.” They stood up and dusted themselves off, and shouldered their spears. Erik led the way back up to the edge of the pit and signed, “There’s nothing here. The trail’s too cold. Fenrir hasn’t been here lately.”

“We need to keep looking,” she said to Leif. “Is there anywhere else near here where we might pick up a trail? Some place that the reavers might have attacked recently?”

The youth squinted at them each in turn. “I’m not here to give you a tour of Ysland. The queen told me to bring you here so you could begin your hunt. I have duties back in the city.”

“I thought your duty was to protect that city, not to hide in it.” Freya shrugged. “But if you don’t know anything, then we don’t need you. We’ll go on alone.”

Leif sneered at her. “There are a few farms to the northeast of here, out toward Glymur Falls. I can take you there if you want to look for more tracks or shit or whatever. But that’s as much time as I’m willing to waste on you two.”

“Waste?” Freya frowned. “We’re looking for the rinegold that will help Skadi cure the reaver plague and save all of Ysland. How is that a waste of time?”

“It’s a waste of time if you’re going to fail,” he said quietly as he turned to leave. “And I’ve faced Fenrir before. I know you’re going to fail.”

Erik lowered his spear and mimed stabbing Leif in the back while making many ridiculous and angry faces. Freya laughed. Leif glanced back over his shoulder, but Erik already had his spear at his side and they all set out across the southern face of the mountain.

As they rounded a jagged spire of volcanic rock, Freya paused to look back one last time at Ivar’s Drill, the crooked and rusting monument to Skadi’s dream, the king’s death, and the birth of a nightmare. But to her, the simple pillar of the engine seemed unworthy to mark so much hope and so much suffering, and she wondered what future generations would think of this strange metal marker alone on the mountainside.

If there are any future generations to see it.

For the rest of the afternoon, Leif led the hunters across the south face of Mount Esja and into the colder hills to the east where the heat of the volcano faded. The ground grew firmer and the grass browner, and eventually they found light dustings of snow on the ground and thin plates of ice on the puddles crunching and cracking beneath their feet.

Looking up, Freya could see the distant peaks of the Hodur’s Hill, Bjorn’s Peak, and Thoris’s Glacier to the northeast, but between her and those ancient giants stretched a rippling, broken plain of hills, boulders, streams, and lakes that promised to slow all travelers to a fraction of their pace.

As the sun glided lower in the western sky behind them, the shadows in the mountain passes grew deeper and darker and colder. The wind rose, whistling and whining through the narrow ravines. Freya paused at turn in the trail to gaze out over the southern plains, over the dark blot of Hengavik and the silvery sheet of Denveller Lake.

Three nights. It’s only been three nights, and we’ve only walked from there to there.

Her eyes flicked across the landscape again.

It feels like it’s been a month, like a journey worthy of a saga or two. All those hours on the road, and the fighting, and the strangers. But it’s only been three nights.

They were well onto the eastern face of Esja and descending quickly toward the lower hills when the sun finally kissed the western edge of the world and the shadow of the mountain painted the world in black and gray and more black. Stars gleamed in the eastern darkness and as the sunset reds washed out of the sky, the heavens transformed into a blue and violet sea sparkling with diamonds.

Erik pointed to a crevasse just below the trail and signed, “We should be all right in there for the night.”

Leif glanced back and groaned. “Oh, what does it want now? Do you need to feed it again? Does it need to piss?”

“We’re going to sleep here.” Freya nodded down at the crevasse. “I’ll take the first watch. And if you can’t keep a civil tongue in your head, then you won’t have a tongue to keep for much longer.” She held the youth’s gaze for a moment, and then followed Erik down into the dark crack in the mountainside.

Her husband placed the butt of his spear on the ground and the tip against the rock wall, and draped a blanket across it to form a simple little tent, and he slipped inside with their second blanket and was soon snoring softly. Leif gave the tent a quick glare before stretching out in a patch of starlight on the bare ground and closing his eyes.

Freya climbed up to the top of the crevasse to look out at the mountainside. She saw the ancient lava flows frozen in time, and the gravel cascades resting in their dry river beds, and the thin clusters of grass standing in the cracks in the earth, shivering in the cold night breeze. Thick blankets of snow and thin sheets of ice glistened everywhere in white, gray, and blue. Overhead a thousand times ten thousand stars spread out from horizon to horizon, drawing crude images of wolves, bears, eagles, dragons, ships, and spears in the sky.

She thought of Wren in the castle of Rekavik, perhaps talking with Skadi and Thora about ghosts and death and monsters, eating warm food and sleeping on soft beds. She pitied the girl and her lonely life trapped in Gudrun’s tower, all alone with a madwoman, and she was glad that Wren would have these days and nights among decent people. Even strange company was better than no company at all.

And then she thought of Katja, deformed and insane, snarling and drooling, and locked in a cold windowless cell buried in the earth under the castle’s wall.

Does her head still hurt from when I kicked her?

Freya curled up as she sat on the lip of the crevasse, wrapping her arms around her knees. A few days ago they’d been talking about taking a few days to visit their cousins to the south in the river lands, down near Kivaberg.

If only we had left then, left Logarven far behind, left before the demon came… But this was no one’s fault. No one was in a hurry to leave and no one had any reason to linger. It was just bad timing. Bad luck. Nothing more.

She stared at the rolling hills off to the east and the distant snowy mountains gleaming blue and green beneath the shining stars and the rippling auroras.

But luck can be changed.

A wolf, a real wolf, howled in the darkness far to the north, and Freya smiled, and she howled back.

If there are still wolves out there, then the reavers must not be so frightening, or so many. Maybe Leif was wrong. Maybe there are only a few of them. Maybe Erik and I already killed half of them in Denveller. Maybe they were starving and dying, and the last three in the world died at our hands beneath Gudrun’s tower. Maybe the plague is already over.

When the stars told her that midnight had come, Freya climbed down into the crevasse and shook Leif awake. “Your watch.” She paused only long enough to make sure the youth was truly awake and moving about, and then she slipped into Erik’s tent and curled up in his warm arms with a smile on her lips.

She was still smiling when the sound of stones tumbling down the slope snapped her eyes back open. It was a small sound, a distant sound, but it was far more noise than she had heard all evening.

Maybe it’s nothing. Freya blinked.

Or maybe it’s something hunting us.

She crawled out of the tent as quietly as a ghost and looked around for Leif, but there was no sign of him. Frowning, she climbed up to the top of the crevasse and peered out over the mountainside below. Gravel crunched under a foot, and Freya’s eyes widened. Two dark shapes were creeping up through the shadows. Two long, crooked, inhuman shapes.

For the first moment, she felt nothing and did not move. She just watched them, watched how they moved, how their long bodies reached and pulled and stretched from handhold to foothold, from ledge to ledge. She watched them pause to sniff, cocking their heads to listen with their tall hairy ears, and sometimes even nipping at each others’ legs when they came too close together.

When the reavers passed behind a rocky outcropping, Freya dropped down into the crevasse and yanked the blanket from their spears, letting the starlight spill on her husband’s face, which shone bright with sweat. She grabbed her spear and shook Erik, and he woke suddenly with a jerk and wild look in his eyes.

A nightmare? I’ll have to ask him about it later.

“Two reavers coming up the slope to the east,” she signed.

He nodded and took his spear. “Where is Leif?” he signed.

Freya squinted into the shadows, but could not see the black-haired youth anywhere near them. “I don’t know,” she signed.

Together they climbed back up out of the ravine on the higher western end and knelt down behind a low line of broken stones. After a moment, they spotted a reaver at the far edge of the crevasse where it leaned out, sniffing and peering down into the darkness. Erik wiped the sweat from his brow and shivered, and then he pointed to the beast and nodded, and Freya nodded back.

Erik took a long silent breath. Then he leapt to his feet, took three running steps down the slope, and hurled his spear. The bolt of steel flashed through the starlight and slammed straight through the reaver’s back and clanged on the rocks beneath it. The beast yelped once and toppled forward, tumbling clumsily into the crevasse with the spear stuck fast through its ribs. Erik heaved a sigh and turned back to their hiding place as his fingers said, “Well, that’s one of-”

The second reaver burst from the shadows on Freya’s right, scrambling across the loose stones on its four clawed feet and its nightmare eyes blazing in the darkness. Freya dashed out, planting herself and her spear between the beast and Erik, readying herself for the moment of impact.

Steel flashed in the starlight, a great white arc in the darkness, and the reaver’s head spun high in the air leaving its body to crash down into the earth. From a thin black gap in the mountainside, a space so small it looked to be merely a shadow, Leif stepped into the light. He did not look down at the body, nor did he note when the creature’s head thumped back down to the ground. He stared out at the distant hills below them, his naked sword at his side.

“You!” Freya bolted forward and swung the butt of her spear in a wild circle at Leif’s head, but the youth jerked back and the steel shaft missed him by a hair. “You were on watch. You left us. We could have died!” She swung at him again and heard Erik running up behind her.

Leif swatted her spear aside with his sword and glared down his nose at her. “I had to piss.”

“You left us to die!” Freya swung again, but Erik grabbed the spear and held it fast in midair. “You’ve been talking about us dying since we came out here. You want us dead. You want us to fail, you coward!”

Leif flicked the reaver’s blood from his sword and slipped it back into the heavy leather scabbard on his belt. “Obviously, I didn’t leave. I’m right here. And I killed this thing.” He kicked the body at his feet. “Show some gratitude.”

Freya pointed to the dark hole behind him. “Who crawls down into a crack like that to piss? You were hiding!”

“I heard the reaver come up behind me,” Leif said lazily. “So I found this place to hide and wait for it. Which seemed to work out quite well.” He kicked the body again. “But if you don’t want to trust me, then I’ll be happy to sleep the rest of the night while you keep watch.” He sauntered past them back toward the crevasse.

Freya whirled and grabbed Erik’s shirt. “Why did you stop me?”

“You were giving him a reason to hurt you, and he might have tried to kill you right here and now,” Erik signed. “He’s a soldier. He slaughters reavers for a living, and he seems just as comfortable with killing his own men as killing the enemy. I’d say it would be bad luck to make someone like him angry.”

“But he betrayed us! He’s actually hoping that we die out here. He said so!”

“Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s over now, either way. And tomorrow we’ll go our separate ways and it won’t matter anymore.”

Freya shoved him. “You could have died! I could have lost you too.”

He nodded and wrapped his arms around her for a moment. Then he pulled back and signed, “You haven’t lost anyone yet. Katja is alive and safe, and the sooner we get back with the rinegold, the sooner she’ll be herself again.”

“You’re right.” Freya exhaled and dug her fingers into Erik’s shirt, feeling the heat pouring off his skin. “Come on. Let’s go find someplace to sleep the rest of the night, away from these bodies.”

Chapter 12. Ghost stories

Wren sat in the dining hall, luxuriating in the heat of the braziers. The guards sat at the far end of the room finishing their mead and wandering off to bed one by one. She was starting to think about going back to her own room when she saw Halfdan pass through the hall. He paused a moment to talk to one of the old guards, then nodded at her, and left. She started to wave, but he was already gone.

She yawned.

It had been a long day sitting in the snow with no one to talk to but the Allfather and the deranged woman in the cell, who occasionally grunted or growled or snarled behind the steel door. Halfdan had come out in the afternoon with a plate of cold meat and kept her company while she ate, telling her more about Ragnar and the other malcontents who were so eager to complain about the plague but were never about when Leif called for volunteers to venture outside the walls of Rekavik.

After sunset, Wren had stood shivering in the deepening shadows, casting uneasy glances down at the locked door of the cell and out at the locked door of the castle wall. She knew no one could come inside during the night, that Katja would be safe until morning, but it took her a long moment’s worrying to make up her mind to go back inside and leave the beastly Katja alone, out in the cold and the dark.

When Halfdan stepped out of the dining hall, Wren stood up and gathered her blanket around her shoulders again. She picked up a few cold lumps of fish from her plate and left. Outside the snow was falling again, but there was no wind inside the castle walls, so despite the noisy gusts up on the roof and out in the streets, the courtyard was quite silent. Rounding the corner of the building she saw the sunken entrance to the cell, and she felt all over again what a lonely, desolate place it was. No torches or braziers glowed there, and even the starlight couldn’t fall near to it because of an overhang in the roof above.

“Well, lord, if you wanted to punish her for some crime, you’ve dreamed up a hell of a way to do it.” Wren shook her head as she trudged down the steps to the dark steel door and peered through the barred window. “Katja? I’m going to push some fish in there to you. No biting, please.”

One by one she poked the meat through the bars with a single, shaking finger, but the prisoner did not cry out, did not crash against the door, did nothing at all.

Wren sighed and turned to go, and found a young boy sitting at the top of the steps wearing nothing but a thin cotton tunic. He stared at her with a blank expression, and then suddenly smiled. “Hi,” he said.

“Hi.” She gave him a little wave and a smile. “I’m Wren.”

“Rolf.” The boy stood up and backed away from the steps to let her come up beside him.

As she moved closer to him, and around him, she realized quite suddenly that he wasn’t standing in a shadow. He looked dim because he was dim, his shade only half-visible in the moonlight falling upon the aether mist on the ground.

The ghost called Rolf dropped his gaze to his bare feet. “You’re new here.”

“That’s right.” Wren stepped back from him, partly to see him better and partly to avoid accidentally touching him, or passing through him. She had stumbled through a ghost once before in Denveller and was in no hurry to repeat the sensation. “I’ve come to help the queen. I’m a vala. Well, an apprentice, sort of. Except my mistress is dead, so I suppose I can’t be her apprentice anymore, and if I’m not an apprentice, then I am a vala after all.”

“Oh.” Rolf stood very still, not swaying in place, not shuffling his feet. His hands hung at his sides, perfectly still.

Wren paused, then said, “Have you come to tell me something, or are you looking for someone?”

The boy grinned. “It’s not like in the stories, you know. Being dead, I mean. I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to find something I lost, or tell people secrets about treasure, or that their friends are going to hurt them.”

“Oh, I know, I just thought that maybe you came here for a reason,” Wren said.

“Well, I heard about the reaver in the cell,” he said quietly, his eyes straying to the steel door. “They were talking about it at the alehouse up the lane, so I came to see.”

“Haven’t you seen reavers before?”

“Yeah, lots.” The ghost shivered. “But always running or fighting, or dead. I’ve never seen one just sitting in a room before.”

“Oh. Well, now’s your chance.” Wren waved at the door.

The boy grinned and silently descended the snowy steps and then stood in front of the cell, and then he pushed his head through the door. Wren looked away, not wanting to think too much about what it would be like to have her body and her head in two different places.

“Huh.” Rolf came up beside her. “It’s just sleeping on the floor, like a rabbit. I thought it would be meaner.”

Wren flashed a nervous smile at him and started pacing away toward the outer wall of the castle. “So, Rolf, how long have you been-”

“A ghost? I don’t know.” He pouted thoughtfully. “A while. Since before the reavers came. I died of the cold one winter, I think, in my sleep.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

He shrugged. “It’s okay. Are there lots of ghosts where you come from?”

“Not too many. I’m from Denveller. There’s a lake there, a warm one. We don’t get much aether there.”

“That’s too bad. Ghosts tell the best stories. All about battles and the raids in Alba. And the really old ones’ll tell you about the gods and the monsters.”

Wren turned to pace along the edge of the wall for a bit and then turned again back toward the cell steps. “My mistress used to tell me those sorts of stories. But she liked the ones about Lady Hel, and the dead gods, and the sagas about the blood feuds. She said I needed to know them to be a vala. I needed to know about death, and the evil things that people do to each other, and why.” Wren paused and stared down at the gray door of the cell in the shadows. “She’d tell me the stories at night, when it was too dark to crush herbs or clean fish or mend clothes.”

“Was it scary?”

Wren nodded. “I hated those stories. They were all blood and curses, and souls being ripped out and guts on the floor, and fire, and ice, and screaming. She had a terrible voice, my mistress, sort of raw and broken. Like she was drowning or dying. And I had to listen to it every night, in the dark. I hate the dark.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“These ghost friends of yours. Have they ever told you about Bloody Tyr?”

“No,” Rolf said. “But I’ve heard people say that name before.”

“Tyr was the king of the gods in the old days. He loved war, and battle, and slaughter. He was the first one to fight the demons of the earth, to tame the earth, so that men and women could live here.” Wren swallowed. “Tyr drank the blood of the dead, and ate their hearts, and wore their skulls as a necklace. He had no love for anyone, no loyalties, no friends. The other gods feared him, feared his strength and his power and his pride. Tyr was fearless.”

“So what happened to him?”

“Woden happened to him. When Fenrir came to Ysland, not even Tyr could defeat it in battle. But young Woden was already wise in the ways of battle and magic, and he forged a magic chain to bind the demon wolf. The chain was made of a fish’s claws, and a bird’s fangs, and a snake’s horns.”

Rolf grinned. “But those aren’t real!”

“Don’t be stupid. Of course they aren’t real, not anymore, because Woden used them all up for the magic chain,” Wren said quietly. “But to bind the demon Fenrir, someone had to hold the wolf down and Tyr was all too eager to do it. So while Tyr held the wolf, Woden bound its legs. But the wolf grabbed Tyr’s arm in its fangs, and Woden saw his chance. He bound the wolf’s maw shut with Tyr’s hand still inside its mouth, and so the war god was forced to tear his own hand off to escape. And this meant he was no longer fit to command the gods, and Woden took his place as king.”

“Oh. I always thought Woden was a nice god.”

“He is, but he’s cruel when he needs to be.” Wren squatted down at the edge of the stairs to gaze into the black cell through the narrow bars of the window in the door. “They say that Bloody Tyr screamed for three days after Fenrir bit off his hand. The wolf’s venom was in the wound, burning him up, until Woden found an herb to cure it. But Tyr’s scream sank down into the earth, and sometimes, if you sleep on the ground with your head on a stone, you can still hear the war god screaming in agony.”

The ghost shuddered and sat down beside her. The wind rose suddenly, whipping through the narrow space between the outer wall and the castle, hurling snow and howling over the stones, and Wren felt her hair flying wild around her face and snapping in her eyes. But Rolf’s hair lay perfectly still on his head.

The boy said, “I heard screaming like that, once. The digger screamed. We could hear it here, every day.”

“The digger? You mean Ivar’s Drill?”

“Yeah. It went on and on, day after day, growling and shrieking. The sounds echoed across the bay for leagues.”

Wren glanced toward the east, toward Mount Esja, but all she saw was the castle wall.

“And then it finally stopped, and the monsters came.” Rolf sighed.

“I know. Skadi said that Fenrir climbed up out of the pit and killed the king right in front of her.”

The ghost looked at her with a faint furrow in his brow. “That’s not what I heard. I heard the king fell in the hole, and Fenrir came out later.”

It was Wren’s turn to frown. “So, then, were the workers trying to pull the king out when Fenrir killed them all?”

Rolf shook his head. “No, that’s not right. Here, let me get someone.” The boy turned away as though to stand up, and simply faded into nothingness.

Wren stared at the empty spot where the ghost had been a moment ago, and then she sniffed and stood up, stretching her back.

“Found him,” Rolf said.

Wren started and spun to see the boy leading a young man through the cold stone wall beside her.

“This is Arn. He was there that day at the pit when the king died. He saw it. Tell her like you told me, Arn.” Rolf nodded.

The ghost of the young man named Arn was tall and handsome, with a small and serious mouth and worried eyes. He wore rough wool trousers, sealskin boots, and nothing else. Wren’s first thought was that he must be cold. Her second thought was that she needed to stop staring at his chest, and his arms, and his…

“I was there,” Arn said. He gazed into her eyes as though he could see through her flesh to her own ghost itself. “I was there that day on the mountain when it happened. I saw it. I saw it all.”

Wren blinked and nodded and tried to focus on what he was saying. “Right, the drill, the king. Right. So what happened?”

“We stopped drilling when the tunnel got too hot,” Arn said. “The king was standing by the pit, talking to the foreman about what to do next. The queen and her guard were nearby, and I was near the drill. We heard the buzzing first, for many long moments, and then the flies swarmed up out of the pit like a storm cloud. They washed over the king in a wave, wrapped around him until all I could see were the whites of his eyes. He tried to beat them away, to crush them, to get away, but still they clung to him. A few men tried to throw a tarp over him. I don’t know what they were thinking. But everyone else just stood there and watched. Like me.”

“Why didn’t you help him?” Wren asked.

Arn shook his head. “It sounds foolish, I know. They were only flies. But you didn’t see them. No one has ever seen such a thing. They covered him like bees on a hive, like pitch on a stone, and he was screaming. Not yelling or cursing like a man in battle, or angry, or drunk. He was screaming like a child trapped in a nightmare. It just went on and on. And then he fell into the pit.”

Wren swallowed. “And then Fenrir came out?”

“And then the king climbed back out,” Arn corrected her. “The flies were falling off him like snow or ashes, all dead. But the king, he was growing bigger and taller, right in front of us. His arms getting longer, his face twisted and stretched like a hide being tanned from the inside. I saw the hair growing out from his face and hands. His clothes tore apart and hung off him in tatters. And all the while he roared at us, and snarled at us, and stared at us with those yellow eyes.”

The girl felt her face twisting into a frown as she realized the truth. “The king was the first reaver? King Ivar is Fenrir?”

“Not the real Fenrir, obviously.” Arn went on gazing into her eyes. “But just as terrible and monstrous, I’ve no doubt. The change came over him and was gone again in the time it takes two waves to sweep a beach clean. One moment he’s a man, and the next he’s a beast with claws and fangs, with tails and mad eyes, all covered in fur, white and black and red as blood.”

“Like a summer fox,” Wren whispered.

Arn nodded, and took a step closer to her.

Wren glanced down at his bare chest and then back up at his dark eyes. “And then?”

“Then the king grabbed the nearest man and tore him in half, ripping his arms off and splitting his chest open, spilling his guts on the ground with buckets of blood.” Arn paused. “But we didn’t falter. Every man grabbed a hammer or pole or pickaxe, and we ran at him. I don’t know what anyone else was thinking, but I was thinking we should push him back into the hole. I don’t suppose I thought we could actually kill a demon like that. The king killed another man, and then another, and then he hurled the bodies at us, knocking us to the ground. He roared at us, and I stared up at him and I thought, well, this is it. This is the end for me. But the beast turned and bounded off across the mountain.”

“It left you alive?”

“The king did.” Arn paused. “The queen didn’t. We were still picking ourselves up off the ground, still covered in the blood and bodies of the three dead men, when the queen’s viper struck.”

“She ordered your deaths?”

Arn nodded. “There were only four of us left, and the bastard slit our throats and split our hearts and left us there to rot in the sun.”

“What bastard? Who killed you?”

“Leif Blackmane.”

“Nine hells.” Wren covered her mouth and whispered, “Freya.”

The corner of Arn’s mouth fluttered as though he wanted to smile but couldn’t quite remember how to. “It’s the strangest thing, but as I lay there, breathing my last breath, I saw something. I could almost swear I saw the dead foreman stand back up again, and walk away.”

Wren barely heard him.

Oh, Freya.

“And that’s the end of it,” said Rolf. “What do you think of that?”

Wren stared at the dead man. “Why haven’t you told anyone? People need to know this. People need to know what really happened. Why did you wait? That was all five years ago. Five years! Think of all the people who’ve died since then!”

Arn suddenly looked ill and turned away, but Rolf glared up at her. “Hey! Don’t you yell at him. He’s only been out of the grave for a month, and he’s the first of the men who died that day to wake up. Don’t you know anything? You might lie in the ground a day or a year or an age before you wake up, if ever. So you back off! You leave him alone!”

“S-sorry, I’m sorry.” Wren pushed her hair back with trembling hands. “I do know that, I know all about it, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. Thank you. Thank you both, so much.”

“Come on, Arn!” Rolf turned and stomped away, and vanished at the edge of the yard. Arn gave her one last sad look and faded into the shadows.

Wren sighed as the smooth muscles of the ghost’s chest disappeared. Then she glanced up at the starry sky and said, “Allfather, I know that you and I don’t always see eye to eye, but I’d consider it a great kindness if you got off your drunken, whoring ass and saved Freya!”

She sniffed and marched back down the steps to the cell door and peeked into the darkness through the bars, and for the first time she noticed the flakes of rust around the edges of the door and the stains around the handle. Frowning, she grabbed the handle and shook it, but the door held soundly in its stone frame.

“Woden, I am your true and faithful vala, and I plan to serve you a very long time. So, in case you’re looking for some reason why you should bother with your daughter Freya, who is a very lovely person by the way, you should know that I’m prepared to make some very generous sacrifices to you just as soon as I have something to offer up. Maybe a seal, and some rabbits, and a pheasant. And you’ll watch over her, and maybe shove Leif off a cliff, all right?”

The night sky made no answer.

Wren sighed and frowned at the steel door again. She reached up and grabbed the rusty bars in the window and shook them.

The fangs sank into her left hand in perfect silence and the only sound that broke the night was Wren’s shriek as she felt her flesh rent open and the searing, plague-filled venom trickling into her veins. She wrenched her hand back and fell to the ground, and through the bars she heard a deep-throated growl that ululated, like laughter.

Groaning and gasping, Wren clutched her burning hand to her belly and stared up at the heavens. “Woden, you miserable son of a bitch!”

Chapter 13. Morayo

Wren ran from Katja’s cell clutching her bleeding fingers to her belly, tears streaming from her eyes. She stumbled in the snow and fell hard against the stone wall of the castle, and she lay there a moment, wheezing and sobbing quietly with her chin on her chest and her eyes squeezed shut.

I’m going to die. I’m going to turn into one of those things, those ugly freaks, those monsters, I’m going to turn into a monster, and then they’re going to come for me, and no one will protect me, and they’ll have to kill me.

Maybe Freya will kill me.

After a few moments she ran out of breath and out of tears and she just sat in the snow, exhausted and trembling, staring at a patch of stone in the wall beside her head. With her burning left hand in her lap, she raised her right hand to look at the bump of the rinegold ring on her finger inside her glove.

Gudrun’s ring.

She sniffed. “Hello, mistress? Gudrun? Brynhilda? Anyone?”

Dimly she saw three or four withered old faces hover in the air for a moment, but only a moment. The faces of the dead valas of Denveller frowned at her and faded away into the darkness. She dropped her hand into her lap and sighed.

“Why?” she whispered. Wren rolled her head against the wall to look up at the black sky and the flurries of white tumbling gently down toward her. “Why, lord? I served you, I kept my faith with you, I kept my oaths to you, and I would have been a good vala. I know I would have. Better than Gudrun, at least. I mean, let’s face it, she was crazy. She spent more time pissing on the floor than honoring you, Allfather.”

The sky said nothing.

“All right, well, maybe that was unfair. She did serve you a long time while she was able, and trained more than a few apprentices, I know. So that’s something. Sorry, lord.” Wren sniffed and shivered. “Still, I would have done pretty well, too.”

The snow began to build up on her arm, and she gently shook it off.

“You’re really not going to answer me, are you? I mean, you never do, but I was sort of thinking that you might this time, since I’m going to die now. You know, it would be nice. Just a word or two,” Wren whispered. “Good work, Wren. Thanks, Wren. Everything will be made clear in the next world, Wren.”

A clump of snow fell from the outer wall and landed on the ground by her foot with a soft thump.

“Fine.” Wren pushed herself up and trudged through the knee-deep snow to the iron door of the castle that led inside to the cloak room and the dining hall beyond, but a sound caught her ear and she paused. The crackle of the burning torch by the door seemed to roar in the silence, so she wandered away from its light and heat and noise back across the courtyard, listening.

The sound had been either very quiet or very far away, but it had sounded like a word, a single word drawn out in a long, weary breath. She crunched across the yard, head down, eyes narrowed to slits. Her hand throbbed, but with it wrapped up inside her sleeve she found it easier to push the pain to the back of her mind.

After all, I have hours, days, before anything will actually happen to me, right?

“Morayo,” said the tiny voice.

Wren froze in place, frowning at the dark walls and snowy lumps around her.

Morayo? Where did that come from? And what does it mean?

Slowly she started walking again, tilting her head back and forth. It had been a quiet voice, not a distant one, and the girl made her way around the far side of the castle, scanning the shuttered windows and even glancing at the top of the outer wall for some sign of life. But the cracks in the shutters were all dark and there was no one on the wall.


Wren looked sharply to her left, then hurried toward the castle wall. The starlight fell on a rough wall of black stone that ran straight down into the freshly fallen snow without a door or window or crack to tell what might be inside. Wren set to digging and kicking the snow away from the base of the wall, but under it all she only found the cold edge of where the wall and the earth met. There was nothing there.

“Hello?” she called softly, and then a little louder, “Hello there?”

The ground was silent, and the night was silent, and Wren’s feet were cold, so she stomped back around to the front of the castle and went inside. The dining hall was empty except for two of the old guards sitting by the fire at the far end, and she went to sit beside them for a little while to dry out her hair and boots, while taking great care to keep her left hand folded up inside her blanket, which she kept draped across her thin shoulders.

The two guards said nothing to her. They didn’t even look at her. They just stared into the smoldering coals in the brazier and chewed on their beards and gently passed gas from time to time.

With her hair dry and billowing out of control down her back and her left hand barely throbbing at all, and only a trickle of sweat on her brow, Wren stood up and quietly left the dining hall. She walked back down the corridor to the room she had slept in the night before. She stood in the corridor for a moment and stared through the open doorway at the cold, lonely bed in her room, and then she walked on by it.

As she passed a room on her left, the curtain was pulled back and a young woman with long dark hair stared out at her. “Oh, it’s you.”

Wren paused. “Thora, isn’t it? How are you?”

“Fine. Tired. Cold.”

Wren nodded.

“So Gudrun is dead,” Thora said. “You must be pleased. Skadi says she was a horror. Did she do things to you?”

“What things?”

Thora shrugged. “Things she shouldn’t.”

Wren cringed. “No! She didn’t do much at all. She could barely move.”

“Oh. Well, good for you then. Are you planning on staying here for long?”

“I’m not planning anything. I’m just waiting for Freya to come back.”

“Then I’m sorry,” Thora said. “You’ll be waiting a long time. No one ever comes back from the north.”

“Not even Leif?”

The apprentice’s face hardened into an expression somewhere between rage and sorrow. “Leif will come back, somehow. He always survives.”

“Oh.” Wren nodded. “I’ll bet he does. You know, back home we have a word for people that always survive, and it isn’t lucky. It’s craven. It’s a pity you don’t have any real men around here to remind you of that.”

Thora’s hand whipped out from the shadows and smacked Wren across the face. “We had the finest men, the bravest warriors, and the finest prince, a prince worthy of standing beside the Allfather at Ragnarok, a prince who-” She broke off, her lip trembling. “But now they’re all dead. The plague took them, one by one, leaving us with the old, and with Leif.”

Wren jerked back from the doorway, clutching her stinging cheek with a sudden tear gathering in the corner of her eye. “I’m sorry. You must have lost people you loved, too. Sorry. I didn’t mean it. I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too.” The apprentice stared out from her haunted, sunken eyes and then withdrew into her room, leaving Wren alone in the dark corridor.

She stared at the closed curtain for a moment, trembling and confused and tempted to press inside and talk to the tall girl again, but instead Wren turned and hurried down the hall with her eyes burning and lips squeezed tightly together. At the end of the passage she turned left and found a stone stair, and she ran down it, down and down the narrow crooked steps into the blackness until she found the earthen floor and she sat down in the cold and the dark, and she cried.

After a while she was too tired to cry anymore and she leaned back on the bottom step and stared into the utter darkness of the cellar. She was about to stand up and go back to her room to try to sleep when she heard footsteps above her descending the stairs. At first she didn’t move, content to let whatever servant find her and sneer at her and tell her to go back to her room. But then she heard the whisper.


The voice! It’s coming from down here!

Wren stood up, groping in the endless shadows for something, anything. She had no idea what she was looking for, but she had to look, and then she remembered the feet thumping down the long stone stair behind her, and she fumbled her way around what seemed to be a tall, frozen sack of potatoes, and she huddled down to wait.

Torchlight bobbed down the last few steps and one of the elderly guards entered the cellar with a lit candle in one hand and a small plate in the other. He walked across the cellar, taking his small ball of dancing light with him, illuminating the rough rock walls of the cave that served as the castle cellar, and Wren tried to see all the sacks of vegetables and grain, and all the salted carcasses, piled along the walls as he passed.

At the end of the cave the guard turned left and moved out of sight for a moment, but the candlelight continued to dance on the walls right there, just around the corner. And then the man returned, walking just as calmly and dully as before with his candle and plate, and he went up the steps, taking the light with him.

When he was gone, Wren stood up and carefully felt her way across the dark cave, rediscovering with her outstretched hands the sacks and butchered animals that she had seen a moment ago. She came to a place that she guessed to be the corner around which the man had disappeared, and she stopped, knelt down, and whispered, “Hello?”


Wren fell over backwards. The voice had been so close, just in front of her face. There had even been a faint gasp of breath, a movement of the cold air. She got back up and reached out with her hand. “My name is Wren. Who are you? Is that your name, Morayo?”

She groped left and right, and farther forward, but encountered nothing. Unwilling to move any farther from the stairs, Wren stopped trying to reach out. Instead, she pulled off her right glove with her teeth and held her bare hand in front of her face and rubbed the rinegold ring with her thumb, and whispered the words, “Wake up, you old hags.”

The ring glowed faintly, so faintly that at first all Wren could see was the ring itself floating in the dark. But the light grew a bit more until she could see her hand, and when she held the ring close to the ground she could see the face of the stone floor. She reached out again, extending her hand just above the floor. She found a plate, a dark circle of tin lying crooked on a bump, and a few small bones wearing a few small shreds of flesh and fat on them. There was a broth in the bottom of the plate as well, but it had run across the tilted surface and down to the ground.

Wren reached a little farther, and found a bare foot. Five dirty toes twitched in the light, and someone inhaled sharply.

A woman?

Wren moved her body a bit farther forward and raised her ring up past the foot, and leg, and body to find the face. She found it exactly where she expected it to be, and yet the sudden discovery of two wide white eyes in the darkness startled her and Wren yanked her hand back, blanketing the face in darkness again, which was worse. So she held out her ring and looked on the face of the woman.

She was middle-aged with gaunt cheeks and dark-rimmed eyes that never seemed to blink. At first Wren thought that the light from her ring was so feeble that it left the woman’s skin in shadows, but after a moment she realized that the stranger’s skin was naturally dark, a deep sort of brown Wren had seen in the eyes of only a handful of people from the south of Ysland, and her hair rose about her head like young heather on the moors.

The woman blinked and whispered, “Morayo.”

“Morayo?” Wren sat down beside her and tried to hold her hand up in a comfortable and non-threatening gesture so the light would fall on both their faces. “Your name is Morayo? I’m Wren. Can you say Wren?”

“Kill… Morayo.” She wasn’t just speaking slowly from exhaustion or starvation, she was struggling to speak Yslander at all. She had an accent like nothing the young vala had ever heard before. “I want… to kill… Morayo.”

“Oh, I see.” Wren nodded slowly. “All right. Good, good. That’s something. You want to kill someone. It’s good to have goals in life. It keeps you going when times are tough. I know how that is. Now, what is your name?”

The stranger looked at her with shaking eyes that stared right through her, seeing nothing. Wren watched her eyes dance in confusion and fear. It was a look she recognized all too well, the same look she had seen in Gudrun’s cloudy eyes every day for the last six years.

She’s insane.

Wren patted the woman’s hand and tried to move the plate closer to her, but the stranger grabbed the plate from her hand and pushed it back down to the floor in the exact same place, tilted up on the uneven stone floor.

“Okay then. We’ll just leave that there for now.”

The glow from her ring began to flicker and fade.

“I’m going to go back upstairs now, but I’ll come back tomorrow. I promise.”

The woman shuddered. “Morayo.”

Wren nodded and exhaled slowly. Then she turned and fumbled back across the dark cellar to the bottom of the narrow winding steps and climbed back up to the main floor. Only a glimmer of starlight fell through the small barred windows, but it was enough to make the upper world seem like a brightly lit paradise compared to the black pit of the cellar.

She hurried back to her room and crawled into bed, where she lay shivering, alone. Her injured hand started to throb again, and when she closed her eyes she dreamed of fangs and blood.

Chapter 14. Glymur Falls

The next morning Freya awoke to Erik’s strong hand gently massaging her shoulder. In the darkness they had moved another mile to the northeast of the crevasse where the two dead reavers lay, and now the first cool rays of the sun fell on the eastern hills and fields to the faint rustling sounds of crickets, rabbits, and sparrows. She kissed her husband, tasting the trace of salt on his tongue, and then they gathered their spears and blankets, and looked at Leif. The youth sat cross-legged on a rock, his chin on his fist. He glanced at them, frowned, and hopped down to the ground. Without a word, he set out for the east, and they followed.

The eastward trek was easier than skirting Mount Esja, though the constant interruptions to cross a stream or hike over a steep hill slick with frost slowed their progress. The brush was sparse here, offering few handholds and no food, and vistas of nothing but grass and earth and stone dusted with ice and snow. But at the crest of each hill, Freya looked out at the landscape and saw their destination growing closer.

They passed the little peak of Sandfell at the base of the volcano, and there they found an empty shepherd’s hut of broken and tumbled stones, but no trace of reavers. Then they began the long hike up the northern side of Jolur’s Hill, a huge bulge in the earth clothed in brown grass and frozen mud. A lone rabbit ran across their path more than once, and several crows stood on the high ridge above them, watching the three people slowly crossing their domain.

When they finally started down the far side of Jolur’s Hill, Freya sighted Myrka’s Lake to the south and the peak of Burfell beyond it. Burfell was the farthest north she had ever ventured before, years ago, and she wondered if that night she spent on the high hill she’d been watched by reavers, or if they hadn’t existed yet. She couldn’t remember how long ago it had been.

They continued east across the icy stream called Brynja’s Ribbon near a handful of empty cottages and trampled gardens full of old tracks that led nowhere, and then they continued up and over Mulafell Ridge. On the far side of the ridge the earth dove deep into a gorge and Leif said the river at the bottom was the Lower Botsna, and on the far side of the gorge Freya saw that the face of the earth was wrinkled and cracked with the channels of hundreds of ancient streams that no longer flowed west to the sea.

They followed a deer trail down into the gorge and crossed the river at a rocky fording where a dozen broken houses stood collapsing into the hillside. Erik knelt by the corner of one house, pawing at the ground. He signed, “There was a fire here recently. Less than a week ago.”

Freya looked at the black marks on the ground. “A very small fire. But you’re right. Someone is still alive out here. Or was.”

On the far bank they turned north to follow the river, and soon the water grew deeper and wider and faster, churning white and wild over the stones as it raced north and west to the coast. At midmorning they came to a point where a second river, the Upper Botsna, came racing down from the east to join its Lower sister. The rushing and roaring of the water made any attempt at talking useless, and Leif pointed along the eastward river, and they hiked on.

They kept close to the water’s edge, sometimes on the cold turf a few steps above the river and sometimes in the freezing spray on the stones in the river itself. Shortly after leaving the Lower Botsna, the land began to rise, angling up steeper and steeper in the shadow of the wrinkled peak to the south, and the walls of the shore rose up around them like a canyon, rising up in sheer walls of gray stone as they trudged along the river’s edge with cold wet feet in the deepening shadows. Soon the roar of the churning river became unbearable as it echoed down the stone corridor of the gorge.

“No one could live in here,” Erik signed.

“Because of the noise?” Freya signed back.

“That, and because the river would only have to rise a little bit to wash a house away.”

“So what? You think he’s leading us into a trap?”

Erik nodded.

Freya grimaced and tightened her grip on her spear. She was tempted to call a halt and demand a few answers from their guide, but with the river screaming in their ears it would be a waste of time. So she kept her eyes on the path ahead, the path behind, and the gorge walls high overhead.

Half a league farther up, Erik pointed to the stone wall about as high up as Freya’s head at a long straight black mark etched into the rock. “What sort of fire did that?”

“Maybe a torch was dragged across it,” Freya signed. “I don’t know, but it means there is someone living up here after all.”

They pressed on, and the farther they went the louder the river became. A thin, cool mist hovered on the water and a thin green moss clung to the rock walls around them. And then a gray shape appeared in the mist ahead. It was a gently curving line that stretched across the entire river from one side of the gorge to the other, and when they were close enough Freya saw that it was a heavy chain bolted into the walls and strung across the river at a height just above her head. Leif pointed to the chain, and then to the far side of the river, and mimed the act of walking using his two fingers on his palm.

Freya exchanged frowns with her husband.

Dangling exposed above a rushing river? No, he won’t try to kill us here. It’s too obvious, and too uncertain. A fall into the river might be dangerous, but not fatal. No, I need to figure out why he wants us dead.

Is he afraid we’ll succeed where he failed? Is he just afraid to be out here at all? Or did Skadi tell him to kill us? Maybe she doesn’t want to find a cure. Maybe she wants to keep Rekavik afraid, isolated, and obedient to her. She’s only a dead king’s wife, not a real queen, so maybe she could lose power if the crisis ended.

Leif reached up for the chain, but Freya pulled him back and indicated to him that she would cross first. The sullen youth shrugged and stepped back. With a hand up from Erik, Freya leapt up to the chain and wrapped her legs over it so that she hung with her back to the river, and then she began pulling herself across. Hand over hand she moved along the chain, feeling the clumps of rust on the links and the cold smooth patches of steel where the links rubbed together.

The mist was thick and she felt her clothes growing heavy as beads of water formed on her face and shimmered on her eyelashes. It was a long, cold crossing, but she reached the far side without incident. Then Leif crossed in the same fashion, and finally Erik joined them. The huge hunter had barely dropped to the gravel strand before Leif set off again along the north shore, still following the river east.

Now the river screamed at them, and the walls screamed at them, and the mist grew so thick they could only see a few paces ahead. And finally Leif stopped and pointed up the path.

Glymur Falls towered over the river, a sheer white cascade that stampeded over the edge of the gorge and crashed down over the rock walls from one mossy ledge to another. Most of the water fell together in a single torrent, but some of the water came down the rock face closer to them, running down in silvery streams before rejoining the river. And in between the white falls and the silver falls, there was a house.

It was a stone lodge built upon a ledge high above the level of the river, and it stood against the gorge wall surrounded by huge broken stones. The roof was also stone, and there were no windows, so the only clear sign that the house was indeed a house at all was the heavy leather curtain protecting the doorway.

Freya gazed up at the falls, at the impossibly high and endless rush of white water plummeting down from the surface of the earth high above them, and she signed, “It’s beautiful. It must be the biggest waterfall in all of Ysland.”

Erik shrugged and signed back, “I’ve seen bigger.”

She punched him on the arm, and they resumed walking.

Leif led the way up to the ledge and he pushed inside the house without pausing at the door, and they followed him inside. Freya stepped into the deep shadows of the windowless home and blinked through her dripping hair. It was nearly silent inside the house. She wiggled her ears and jaw, and reveled in the gentle sensation of being able to hear herself think again. She glanced around, but there was nothing to see. The floor had been swept bare and the house was empty.

Leif flopped down in the corner on the floor and sighed. “Well, here it is. Glymur House. If anyone was still going to be alive out here, I thought it might be Kjartan. He lived here with his mother. Tough old bastard.”

Freya wrung out her hair on the floor and then let the heavy blonde lock hang down her chest to her belt. “Why would anyone live here? How would they even build this house?”

Leif shrugged. “It was a vala’s house. Kjartan’s mother was the vala. The last vala of Glymur, it would appear. Kjartan fished the river, I think. There’s trout in there. He’s the one who put up the chain, too, but that was a long time ago.”

“So you’ve been here before?”

“Sure, when I was younger, back before the plague. I used to live a few leagues west of here, farther down the Botsna near the sea. I remember Kjartan didn’t have much, but there was furniture in here, and skins and furs. They were all gifts for the vala from over the years. But it looks like they took everything with them. They must have left before the reavers found them.” Leif stretched and groaned.

A dead end.

Freya sighed and leaned against the cool rock wall.

So now the real hunt begins, with no trail to follow, and no idea where Fenrir might be.

Erik wandered around the room, scraping his shoes on the floor and examining the walls. He paused to peer into a crack where two of the rocks didn’t quite touch, admitting a sliver of light and a whisper of the noise of the falls. He jerked back from the wall with a grimace and he looked at Freya, signing, “I don’t think they left in time.”

She followed him outside, back into the roar and the mist, and they circled the house. On the far side of the ledge, just in front of the huge column of churning white water of the larger waterfall, there was a narrow crack running up the face of the rock wall, and jammed into that crack just a little above Erik’s head was a metal spike, perhaps the broken shaft of an old steel spear. And hanging from that spike was a body.

It was only half a body, the legs and pelvis, possibly a woman’s from the look of the hips, and it was dangling upside-down from the ankles, which were bound together with a hemp rope that had rotted down to its last threads. The bones themselves were bleached white from the sun, and every one of them was covered in huge, glistening brown slugs.

The rest of the body, the ribs and arms and skull, were missing. But Freya spotted a bit of white in the cracks in the rock around the hanging legs, and she reached down into a gap full of small stones and pulled out a single broken rib.

“It can’t be Kjartan,” Leif said.

Freya could barely understand him over the noise of the falls, but she read his expression and the man’s name on his lips, and drew his meaning. She recognized all too well that the bones were not a man’s, and were small for a grown woman as well, so if it was not a child, it was certainly an elderly woman’s body.

Kjartan’s mother, the vala. Another dead vala.

Freya inhaled a long sigh of the cold wet mist and wiped her hair back from her face. She patted Erik on the arm and signed, “There’s nothing here. We should go back-”

She broke off when she saw the look on her husband’s face change and his eyes snapped to the left. Freya spun to look just in time to see a tall man with brown skin and midnight hair step out of the shadows from behind the waterfall.

The stranger’s face wore many fine lines around his eyes and mouth, as though from years of worry and sorrow, but his brow and cheeks were quite smooth and strong. His hair was thick and wild and wavy, even weighed down with the damp of the mist, and there were faint streaks of gray at his temples and the edges of his stubbled jaw.

Freya couldn’t begin to guess how old he might be, thirty or sixty or anywhere between, but his dark eyes sparkled with amusement and a faint grin curled his lip. She smiled and raised a hand in greeting. “Hello there!”

“Son of a bitch!” Leif whipped his sword free of its sheathe and gripped it in both hands.

Freya looked at the youth. “Hey, language!” But Erik grabbed her shoulder before she could stalk toward him. “What are you-oh.”

The stranger wore a long dark blue coat with bright silver buttons down the right side, but the coat was open to reveal the man’s finely tailored shirt and trousers and shining black boots, and his sword. It was no Yslander sword. The hilt was slender with a woven grip, and the guard was a square plate instead a bar, and instead of a pommel there was a simple black cap below the grip.

That’s a pretty little sword.

Freya raised an eyebrow.

It looks like a snake.

The stranger smiled a cold and humorless smile, and he called out, “Leif of the Blackmane! The shining sword of Rekavik! It’s been ages, young man, just ages. How have you been?” He rested his hand on the butt of his sword.

“You’re dead!” Leif hissed, his sword shaking in his hands.

The stranger held out his empty hands as though inviting the youth to embrace him. “Not at all, young man. Why? Aren’t you happy to see me again?” He spoke with a strange accent, and his smile widened to flash his brilliant white teeth at the young warrior.

Freya wrapped her fingers around her favorite knife, and found the bone handle cold to the touch. She called out over the roar of the falls, “Leif! Who is this?”

The youth didn’t answer. He shuffled forward a few paces on the wet rock, keeping his sword pointed at the stranger.

The dark man leapt lightly across the wet ledges to stand between the hunters and the young warrior.

“Stay away from me!” Leif shuffled back.

“I intend to, young man, just as soon as I repay you for our last encounter.” The stranger stepped forward and drew his sword, and Leif screamed.

Freya stared at the young man. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

The Yslander’s sword clattered on the rock and tumbled into the river. The youth stumbled back, his face ashen, his mouth stretched wide in a silent scream, his neck straining with throbbing veins.

Still Freya stared in confusion. “What happened?”

And then Leif’s left arm fell off at the shoulder, leaving a blackened stump waggling in his severed sleeve. Leif stared down at his arm on the ground, and then he collapsed, struck his head on the rock ledge, and rolled back into the river.

Freya started forward. Erik tried to hold her back, but she shrugged him off and ran to the edge of the rock to look down into the frothing waters, but there was no sign of Leif. The dark man sighed and she jumped back, a knife in her hand. “Who are you?”

The man raised his sword, not to threaten her but to inspect it. The blade shone with a brilliant white light that cast his face in sharp lines and deep shadows, and the mist from the falls exploded into waves of scintillating rainbows. He smiled sadly, and slipped the sword away, and suddenly the ledge and the mist were quite dull and dim once more. “You’re not a friend of his, are you?”

“Who are you?” Freya shouted. Erik moved closer, his spear leveled at the man’s back.

He killed Leif, and Leif was a prick, but he wasn’t a murderer. At least, not yet, I don’t think. So what does that make this man?

The stranger inclined his head. “Perhaps it would be better if we spoke inside.”

“What?” she shouted over the falls and squinting through the mist. “Maybe we should go somewhere else to talk.”

“Indeed, fair lady.” The man turned and leapt lightly back across the ledges and slipped into the shadows behind the falls.

Freya frowned and put her knife away. Erik nodded at the falls, and she nodded at him, and they followed the stranger into the darkness. The rock ledges were slick and the rushing cascade was absolutely deafening, but Freya kept her spear close and minded her feet and soon she was standing inside the cave. Erik slipped once, but she caught him, and they stood side by side. The falls shimmered behind her like a curtain of crystal sparkling in the sunlight. But ahead of her she could see nothing at all.

“Hello?” she called.

The soft sigh of a sword being drawn echoed in the distance, and the stranger’s white blade appeared in the darkness, illuminating the rough stone floor, the vicious stalactites hanging overhead, and the man holding the shining weapon.

“Come along, fair lady,” he said. He headed back into the cave, taking the light with him.

Freya followed with Erik at her side, and they hiked up the gentle incline of the cavern until the falls were only a pale dot behind and below them, and their roaring was reduced to the gentle shushing of a stream or the wind in the grass. At first they saw nothing but stone walls, but soon they came upon a slope strewn with bones, pale white ribs and femurs and skulls, many smashed into fragments that crunched underfoot.

Above the bones, the stranger led them into a chamber where the floor was quite smooth and the hanging rock spears had all been broken off, leaving smooth little stumps above their heads. There were quite a few furs and skins piled up against one wall, which Freya took to be the man’s bed, but it was the only sign of human habitation. There were no other pieces of furniture, no tools, no clothes, nothing to cook with, and nothing to eat. At least, not that she could see.

“You live here?” she asked.

“I do indeed,” the stranger answered. He sat down on the edge of his bedding and plunged his sword into a crack in the floor beside him. The shining blade filled the chamber with its pale, dead light, but within moments Freya saw the stone floor begin to glow a dull red and the air grew warmer and drier. Tiny arcs of lightning writhed and snapped along the sword’s edge, hissing and buzzing like a living thing. Their host gestured to the floor near the sword and said, “Please, have a seat.”

They sat. The man on the bed rested his hands on his knees and gazed into the bright blade of his sword. “There were times, so many times, when I imagined what I would do if I ever saw Leif again. Flights of fantasy, day dreams, you know the sort. A bloody bit of torture, a grandiose duel, and many brave and poetic words from me, of course.” He smiled briefly. “I suppose I was just too surprised to see him today, too angry to think. Ah well.” He sighed and shifted his gaze to Freya and then Erik, and back again. “Is he your husband?”


“He doesn’t speak, does he?”


The man nodded. “Well, that simplifies things in some ways, doesn’t it?”

“Who are you?” Freya asked.

“What a deeply philosophical question, probably more so for me than perhaps any other person in the world, in history, even. I have so very many names-”

“Just one will do,” Freya said.

Please don’t say Woden.

He raised an eyebrow and smirked. “Omar. Omar Bakhoum, at your service, fair lady.”

“And why did you kill Leif?”

The man called Omar smiled again and winked at her. “You don’t seem very upset about it. He wasn’t a close friend of yours, was he?”

“We’d only just met, and no, we won’t be mourning his death any time soon.”

Omar nodded and resumed gazing at his sword. “There’s no guarantee that he’s actually dead yet, you know. He survived the cut quite well, without a drop of blood lost. It wasn’t until two years ago that I could pull that trick off.”

“I saw that. The cut was burned over black before the arm hit the ground.” Freya pointed to the sword. “It burns as it cuts, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, it does.”

“But you never cut him,” she said. “You just drew the sword and he screamed, just like that. Is it a magic sword?”

Omar laughed so hard and loud that the echo kept cackling and guffawing long after the man fell silent. He shook his head, then nodded. “Yes, and no, and maybe. But I did cut him. You just didn’t see it. It’s called iaido, the art of drawing the sword. My dear friend Daisuke has been teaching it to me.”

“Friend?” Freya glanced about the stone chamber.

“Oh don’t worry, he’s quite dead,” Omar said. “I killed him myself, but that was years ago and we’ve become rather good friends since then.”

Erik signed, “He’s mad.”

Freya signed back, “Maybe. Definitely dangerous though.”

Omar raised an eyebrow at their exchange, but only said, “You must think me crazy. Certainly, certainly. Any sane person would. But then again, the last person to trust me became the queen of Ysland in less than two years, so clearly there are advantages to listening to what I have to say.”

“Wait, the queen?” Freya leaned forward. “You know Skadi?”

“Indeed I do, fair lady. Or I did, for a time. As much as one can know a person without torturing them, anyway.”

Freya nodded slowly. “Maybe you should start at the beginning. Who are you, exactly? And how do you know the queen?”

Chapter 15. Immortal

“I come from the city of Alexandria,” Omar said, “in the province of Aegyptus, in the Empire of Eran, in the land of Ifrica, which is very far away. But none of that matters right now. And you didn’t come all the way out here with Leif to learn about the queen, did you? You want to know about the reavers, yes? But to understand the reavers, you need to understand where they came from, which takes us back to why I am here in your charming little country. So then, I will start with this sword of mine.”

He pointed at the shining blade standing in the crack in the floor. “We call the metal sun-steel. And if there is any genuine holy mystery in this world, it is in this metal. If it weren’t so bright right now, you’d see it has the color of copper or gold. But here’s the secret. The sun-steel draws in aether like a magnet draws iron shavings. It drinks up aether and it swallows the souls of men and women right along with it, living or dead makes no difference. And if you-”

“Rinegold!” Freya pointed at the sword. “You’re talking about rinegold!”

Omar smiled kindly and leaned back a bit. “Oh, good. You’ve heard of it. That will make this so much easier. Are you a vala?”

“No, but my sister was. Is. She is.” Freya pressed her lips together and glanced at Erik.

“Was, or is?” Omar tilted his head.

“What I mean to say is that she was bitten by a reaver three nights ago,” Freya said softly.

“Oh.” Omar nodded. “I understand. And I’m sorry.”

“It’s not as bad as all that, not yet,” Freya said. “Skadi said that if we could bring her the rinegold ring of Rekavik that the king wore, then she could talk to the ancient valas and cure the plague, and save my sister.”

“She said that, did she?” Omar sighed. “Is that why you’re out here? You’re looking for Ivar’s ring? Then she’s betrayed you, just as she betrayed me. She sent you to your death, and all for nothing.”

“I’ve never failed in a hunt before, and I’m not afraid of Fenrir.”

He looked at her with a strange mixture of confusion and curiosity. “What is a Fenrir?”

Freya stared at him. “The demon, the source of the plague!”

“Demon?” Omar shook his head. “No, fair lady, I’m afraid you have it all quite wrong and backward. No demon brought this disaster to your people. No, it was Skadi who did it, and I helped her, God forgive me.”

“What?” Freya whispered.

“Allow me to go back to the very beginning again.” He paused. “No, allow me to gloss over the beginning.” Omar held out his empty hand to her. “Your knife, please.”

Freya hesitated and glanced at Erik, who frowned and nodded slowly, so she handed over her least favorite bone blade. Omar took it, examined it thoughtfully for a moment, and then plunged it straight through his left palm. Freya and Erik started up, but the stranger waved them back. His face was twisted in pain, and he hissed and wheezed a moment, and then pulled the knife out and handed it back to her dripping with blood.

“Now look, quickly!” He held up his bleeding palm, and before their eyes his torn flesh folded back together and stitched itself closed without leaving the slightest scar. Omar wiped the blood away on his bedding and held up his hand, clean and whole again. He exhaled slowly and wiped a tear from his eye. “Well, that was bracing.”

“Nine hells.” Freya gripped her knives. “Are you… a god? Are you him? Woden?”

“No, no, no. Just a man. A very old man.” He rubbed his left hand gently. “You see, a long time ago I discovered the sun-steel and began to play about with it. I learned that it absorbed aether, and that it could hold a human soul. I was enthralled. Obsessed. I devoted my whole life to studying it, and after many years I completed my masterpiece.” He reached into his shirt and pulled out a slender black chain, and from this chain dangled a lumpy golden pendant. “Inside this sun-steel heart is a drop of my own soul.”

“Your soul? How did you do that?”

“I call it soul-breaking.” He put the pendant away. “It’s only a little painful and strange, and only for a moment. Soul-breaking can do the most marvelous things. For instance, if you seal a drop of your soul in a lump of sun-steel as I did, your body becomes just as timeless as the metal itself. I call it the transitive property of the soul. Never rusting, never tarnishing, never changing.”

“Never? Does that mean you’re immortal?” she whispered.

Omar nodded. “I am indeed, and that little discovery was only the beginning. I wanted to know everything. I had so many questions. What connects the steel to the aether to the soul? Is there even more to it that I haven’t found yet, like angels? Is heaven a tangible place, a place you can actually walk into? And ultimately, can we learn to meet God face to face? I had this notion in my head that a sun-steel compass would lead me along a path of aether all the way to the gates of paradise where I would ask the Almighty about, well, everything. The meaning of it all, the meaning of life itself, all the secrets of the universe.”

He sighed. “So I traveled all the way to Nippon, where I founded a temple full of monks who searched for sun-steel and studied its secrets. Of course, one of the first things these monks did was learn to forge sun-steel into a weapon. Their idea, not mine. Thus, the seireiken was born. The spirit-sword.” He gestured to his shining blade leaning in the crack in the floor.

“Where does the light come from?” Freya asked.

“From the thousands of souls sealed inside it. Those divine sparks heat the sun-steel until it glows so hot that it can only be contained with clay.” Omar tapped his sword’s scabbard. “But the great wonder is that if you hold the sword, you can see the faces of those souls, and hear their voices.”

“Just like Wren’s rinegold ring. She can see her dead mistress in her ring, too. Whose souls are in your sword?”

Omar shrugged. “Mostly old priests and doctors and scholars. I collected them on their deathbeds. For the most part.”

“The dead warrior you spoke of before, the one who taught you to fight.” Freya nodded slowly at the sword. “He’s trapped in there, isn’t he?”

“Ito Daisuke.” Omar smiled wistfully. “He challenged me to a duel in Marrakesh.”

“And he lost.”

“Oh no, he beat me quite easily.” Omar laughed. “I was ever the scholar and never the warrior. No, young lady, I had no chance against him. But I only had to cut him in the foot with my seireiken to draw out his soul and leave him cold on the ground.”

“But, if that’s true, then is Leif’s soul in there now as well?”

“Now that is a very good question! And as I said before, if I had fought him a few years ago, the answer would be yes. But since then I have learned the fine art of iaido, the art of drawing the sword, the art of the perfect cut. So now, with a great deal of effort, I can wield my seireiken without killing. Of course, I had to learn to do that to study the plague victims here. I certainly couldn’t help the reavers if I kept killing them with the slightest cut, could I?”

Freya glanced in the direction of the bones on the slope behind them. “You’ve been trying to cure the plague?”

“With very little success, I’m sorry to say.”

Erik tapped his little steel knife on a rock, and when Freya looked at him, he signed, “He said they caused the plague, him and Skadi. Ask him about that.”

“He wants to know… about the plague?” Omar squinted at Erik’s hand. “Is that right?”

Freya’s eyes went wide. “You can understand him?”

“I’ve seen hand-speech before. Yours is new to me, but I’m pretty good with languages. I should be. After all, I know most of them. Did you know that Yslander is almost identical to Old Rus?”

“What’s Rus?”

Omar smiled. “A faraway place. Anyway, you asked about the plague, and since you’ve come all this way into the wilderness in search of a cure that does not exist, I shall tell all.” He paused and frowned. “Eight? Yes, eight years ago I boarded an airship in Marrakesh bound for the northern wastes of Europa, and-”

“Airship?” Freya slapped her hand on the ground. “The skyship in Hengavik!”

“What? Oh, yes, that’s right. You’ve seen that too, have you? Well then, I can skip over that part. We crashed, obviously. Not that it was my fault, mind you. I was just a passenger.” Omar frowned at his sword, his brown face painted a ghostly white by its light. “You see, I was looking for a special place, an island from an old fairy tale. A country of seers who communed with the dead, a lost paradise where all the secrets of life and the universe were kept hidden from the world. An island where shining cities of sun-steel kept the land itself warm and fertile when it should have been buried under a wall of ice.”

“You mean Ysland?”

“I mean Ysland.” Omar nodded. “Imagine my horror and misery as I lay beside the wreckage of the airship in Hengavik, staring up at those damned volcanoes spewing their smoke and ash into the sky, listening to some man tell me that there was no gold on the whole island.” His frown softened into weary resignation.

And then he chuckled. “So much for paradise. So much for finding all the answers to all my questions. Paradise. God. The universe. It cost me my left arm to learn nothing at all. But it cost the rest of the crew their lives. Except the captain, that is.”

“What do you mean, it cost you your left arm?” She stared at him. His left arm was exactly where one would expect it to be.

“Hm? Oh.” He held up his left hand. “Looks just like the original, right down to the little hairs on my knuckles. It was torn off in the crash, the original, I mean. This new one grew back in less than a day. I screamed the entire time.” He shook his head. “Not my finest or proudest hour.”

Freya peered at his hand. “It grew back because of the rinegold? Because you’re immortal?”

Omar nodded. “Break me, and my little pendant will set me right again just as fast and as painfully as it can.”

“What would happen if someone cut off your head?”

The foreigner looked ill. “I have no idea, and no wish to find out. Maybe my body would grow a new head, or my head would grow a new body, or both, and then there’d be two of me, which is a fairly awful thought. Or maybe I’d just die. Wouldn’t that be something?”

Again Erik tapped his knife and signed, “The plague?”

“Ah yes, quite right, my quiet friend. The plague.” Omar glanced up as though trying to remember. “Well, after the crash, I met a charming woman who called herself a vala, which seems to mean shaman or witch or something to you people, and this woman, Skadi, was quite interested in the airship, or what was left of it.”

Omar stretched out sideways on his bed, propped up on one elbow. “So the captain, a beautiful Mazigh nymph who kisses quite forcefully, by the way, began teaching Skadi about the ship and I began sulking about my rotten luck. But as it turned out, Skadi was as obsessed with steam engines as I was with sun-steel. She took us to King Ivar, and there was some politicking and romance, all very boring, and finally Skadi married the king and set out to save the entire country using the Mazigh engine. Tapping a volcano to bring back the trees, would you believe? Anyway, the captain and Skadi built a new engine-”

“Ivar’s Drill,” Freya said.

“Yes, the drill. And they started drilling to release the magma. It was an ambitious plan. It might have even worked.” Omar shrugged. “And once they got up and running, I shook myself out of my gloom and decided to help. After all, they were digging a hole. Who knew? They might have even found some sun-steel in there. So I offered my services as foreman of the team and oversaw the last four months of drilling, right up to the day when we found the hot spot and Skadi brought the king to oversee her triumph over nature.”

“And you released the plague?”

“No, fair lady, we released about a thousand mosquitoes, or as you say, bloodflies. They must have been lying dormant in some pocket in the rock. They swarmed up out of the hole and stung the poor king nearly to death right in front of me. I suppose if I had been standing in that spot, they would have stung me instead, to no effect except my own immense though momentary discomfort, and none of this plague business would have happened. But they stung the king, and he became the first of your damned monsters.” Omar picked at the fur of his blanket. “Poor bastard. He was a nice man. Not very bright, but he was nice. He had a lovely singing voice.”

“How did you get away?”

“I didn’t. The king transformed right before our eyes, growing and changing, screaming and howling. Then he killed three men and ran off. We were still picking ourselves up off the ground when Skadi gave the order and Leif killed the rest of us right there. I supposed she didn’t want any witnesses telling tales about how she turned the beloved king into a murderous freak of nature.” Omar shrugged. “So after Leif killed me, I woke up and found I had very little desire to go back to Rekavik, as you can imagine, so I wandered off to sulk a bit more in the hills. But then when the plague became apparent, I set myself up here to try to cure it. I figured it was the least I could do.”

Freya said, “That’s very generous of you. Although, you shouldn’t blame yourself for what happened. It wasn’t your fault.”

“Of course it wasn’t my fault!” Omar frowned at her. “It was that egomaniacal queen of yours and her rabid little lapdog, who is currently swimming down the Botsna to visit the sea.”

Freya nodded and they both fell silent for a moment. Then she said, “So you came to Ysland by accident, and Fenrir is really Ivar, and the rinegold ring of Rekavik is probably still on his finger, which hardly matters because Skadi was probably lying about using it to end the plague.”

“Don’t be so sure about the ring. Skadi must want to end this madness as much as anyone. It’s no joy ruling over a miserable country,” Omar said. “She might have been telling the truth about the ring. It does contain the souls of your ancient valas, although I have very little confidence that some Yslander relic has any real wisdom to bear on this crisis. I’ve traveled most of the world and seen only a handful of animals with a natural ability for soul-breaking like these bloodflies of yours. There is a golden dragon in China, for example, that can also-”

“The bloodflies. Erik!” Freya dashed to her husband’s side and grabbed his hand. He tried to pull it away, but she wrenched it forward into the light. “No!”

His smooth pale skin was prickled over with dark hair, and when she looked into his ice blue eyes she could see the bright slashes of gold forming across them. She pushed the hair away from his ears and found them stretched and pointed, and again she felt the great heat pouring off his body.

Omar walked over and pulled his sword from the ground.

“No, please!” Freya leapt up between the men, holding out her empty hands to ward the foreigner away. “Don’t kill him! The plague’s already taken my sister. You can’t take him too!”

“When was he bitten?”


Omar stared at her, his eyes dark with misery and sorrow. “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do for him. He has two days at most before the change takes him completely.”

Freya whipped her knife free and pointed it at his throat as she eyed his bright sword. “Then help me find the Rekavik ring. Help me find a cure.”

Omar ran his thumb down the edge of his jaw, and then across his nose, and then tugged his ear. “Again, the ring is probably useless, but why not? It’s little danger to me. And I suppose I can always kill him for you later, before he can hurt anyone else.”

Erik pulled Freya around to look at him and he signed, “He’s right. I didn’t want to admit what was happening to me. I’m sorry, but he’s right. I can’t go with you. It’s too dangerous. I might turn on you, and you’d have to kill me.”

Freya grabbed his shirt. “I’m not going to just leave you here. What if the other reavers find you here? Or what if you change and go running off into the wild?”

Erik frowned a moment. “I’ll go back to the water mill that we saw on the road to Rekavik. If I’m quick, I can be there by morning. I’ll clear out the bodies and chain myself up where that man had his brother. I should be safe enough there, and you can come find me later when you have the cure.”

Freya searched his eyes, her thoughts racing, but she couldn’t focus, couldn’t think of anything better than what he had described. So she nodded. “All right. You go on, and then I’ll come find you. And I’ll fix everything. I swear, I’ll come for you.”

Chapter 16. Hunting

Freya and Omar took Erik back down the river’s edge past the empty vala’s house to the heavy chain strung across the water. She took her husband’s sweaty, hairy cheeks in her hands and gazed up into his blue-gold eyes. “I’ll be back soon. You know I will. Just stay safe until we get back with the cure.”

He nodded and wrapped his arms around her and she pressed her cheek to his chest, her eyes closed, trying to hold on to that moment and pretend that it wouldn’t end, that life wouldn’t go flooding on past them like the river at their side. But the moment ended and they pulled apart.

He kissed her, gave Omar a stern look, and climbed swiftly across the chain to the far bank.

“He’s doing very well,” Omar said over the churning noise of the river. “He may last another three days if he can keep his heart rate down and slow the changes.”

“He’ll be fine,” Freya said as she watched her husband hiking down the gorge toward the east. “You’ll see. When we meet back up at the water mill, he’ll be there. And he’ll be himself still. He won’t be beaten by a little bloodfly.”

“I sincerely hope not.” Omar nodded. “Let’s be off then.” He led her back up the river and into a narrow ravine that angled north and began to climb up from the level of the river back up to the hills above the Botsna.

When they emerged from the gorge and stood in the free air again, Freya saw that it was late afternoon and the hills were already turning a molten shade of copper as the sun grew angry and red in the western sky. Omar pointed northeast across the vast snowy fields, and they marched on. The peak of Thaverfell stood on their left and Vingisfell stood on their right, and through the vale between them Freya could see the shimmer of a lake that she guessed to be Redar.

They were all just names she had learned from her father and from the old trappers long ago, but even now as she looked upon them they were still little more than words. Hill, mountain, river, lake. She couldn’t see their wild beauty, or their ancient bones, or their hidden secrets. She only saw league after league of ground between her and the golden ring that could save her husband and her sister, and league after league that she would have to cross again to get back to them.

Freya scanned the earth at their feet in the fading light, picking out a footprint here and a tuft of fur there. She saw signs of reavers on every side, along with sheep bones and broken fangs and strangely colored dung in the snow.

“You see their trails?” Omar asked.

“Yes. They’re everywhere. Dozens of them.”

“Most of them have been moving farther north, building dens in the hills up toward Lamb’s Run where there are no people, only the herds and the flocks. Wild sheep and deer by the hundreds.”

“Are the reavers afraid of people?” she asked.

“Maybe. Or maybe they remember that they themselves used to be people, and the memory drives them mad with rage, or sorrow.” Omar shrugged. “Either way, they do keep to the north these days. When I want to find one to try to cure it, I have to go quite a way. If we walk all night, we should reach Lamb’s Run by noon tomorrow.”

Freya stopped. The sky was already a deep violet and the stars were shining in the east, and a soft cool breeze rustled through the tall yellow grass. “And then what?”

Omar paused to look back at her. “And then we start looking for Ivar. Or Fenrir, if you prefer.”

Freya shook her head. “No, that will take too long. We could spent days wandering the hills looking for Fenrir, chasing down the wrong reaver, fighting off whole packs of them at a time.”

“I don’t see that we have a choice in the matter.”

“Erik doesn’t have that much time,” she said sternly. “We need to find Fenrir as quickly as we can. Tonight, if possible.”

“I don’t see how,” he said with a bemused smile.

“It’s simple.” She gazed up at jagged heights of Thaverfell overlooking the lake. “We bring him to us.”

“Aha. A trap?”

“A trap.” She turned left off the path and struck out for the high hill. They hiked up the slope, their boots crunching on the frozen earth and the bits of ice in the depressions in the ground with Freya leading and Omar trailing several paces behind. After a while, she said, “Tell me more about the bloodflies.”

“What do you want to know?”

“I’ve been bitten by bloodflies before. Everyone has. But no one’s turned into a mad, hairy beast before. Why is that?”

“I see.” The foreigner was still behind her, but she could tell from his voice that he was smiling in the dark. He said, “Your average bloodflies are different from the ones we found in the pit on Mount Esja. The ones we released were an ancient and special breed, a breed with the ability to drink not only blood but aether as well, and with that aether they can swallow a drop of their victim’s soul. I can only imagine how vicious and savage those ancient flies were in their prime, engorged with blood and filled with the strength of mountain goats or stags or bears. But that sort of bloodfly must have died out long ago, leaving only their feeble cousins behind to pester you with their buzzing and nipping.”

“So the flies that came out of the pit still had the blood, and the soul, of their last meal in their bellies?” Freya frowned. “I see now. This isn’t a germ-plague at all. It’s a soul-plague?”

“Exactly. These people are all tainted with tiny drips and shreds of the soul of an animal, and from my research, I believe that ancient beast was a giant summer fox, another creature that died out long ago and left only its smaller and less threatening cousin behind to harry your flocks. That would be the winter fox, of course.”

“You can tell all that from the flies?”

“No, I can tell that from the bodies of the victims that I examined over the last few years. And not only was it a red-furred summer fox, but it was a female at that. A vixen, in heat.”

Freya threw a smile over her shoulder. “Now you’re playing games with me. How could you possibly know that it was a female in heat?”

“Because all of the victims, all of the men and women who have been turned into beasts either by the bloodflies or by the bites of other victims, every single one of them, is now a female reaver. There are no males.” Omar paused. “I didn’t notice it at first. But by the time I examined my fourth subject I was becoming suspicious. And then I happened upon a young man lying on the ground just a few leagues out there.” He pointed to the east.

“He was a hunter too, just like you and your husband, and he had killed the reaver that attacked him. The beast lay dead nearby with a spear through its throat. But it had bitten him in the leg, leaving him unable to get home. I stayed with him, trying to keep him calm, watching for the signs of the change. And along with the fur and the ears and eyes of the beast, I saw the little pink buds on his belly.”

Omar cleared his throat. “In the middle of the night I killed him, struck him dead with a single cut to the throat. I couldn’t stand to watch anymore, or hear anymore of his screaming as his bones wrenched apart, stretching his flesh. But when the sun rose the next morning, I stripped away his clothes to examine the body further and found his manhood quite gone. And that is how I know that the summer fox that fed the soul-sucking bloodflies countless eons ago was in fact a vixen, fair lady. I’m guessing that it was in heat from some of the, ahem, behavior that I’ve seen.”

Freya had slowed and finally stopped as she listened to his tale and now she stood still and silent on the hillside beneath the stars, staring at the dark stranger with her mouth hanging open.

My Erik, my poor Erik. He has no idea. I don’t know if he could stand the thought of it. Losing his voice nearly broke his heart when he was a boy. But now, losing his…

This could destroy him if it happened, if he knew. But he doesn’t know. Thank the Allfather for that. And I won’t let it happen, whether the Allfather helps me or not.

Freya started walking again. “Let’s hurry. We need to set our trap.”

At the top of Thaverfell, they found a bare, wind-blasted mound of dry earth and rock with a few light dustings of frost in the cracks in the ground. The night sky spread from one horizon to the next in unbroken cloudless beauty, cold and lifeless and silent. Freya dashed left and right around the hilltop, kneeling to examine this hole or that stone. Eventually she worked her way over to the east side of the hill, which overlooked the lake, and she found a long and narrow defile that ran in lightning jags down to the water’s edge. “Here. This is where we’ll do it.”

“Do what, exactly?” Omar gazed down the slope at the jagged black line sliced into the hillside.

“Snare Fenrir.” Freya took the long, slender cord from her belt and uncoiled it on the ground. She shook her head. “I’ll need to double it up to make sure it’ll hold him, but that won’t leave enough for the second snare. Although, maybe we can cheat on that as well.” She climbed down into the crevasse and trotted along the flat bottom to a sharp corner that shot to the left. “Here.”

“Would you mind terribly giving me some notion of what you’re working on?”

“Fenrir’s a big boy, isn’t he?” She winced. “Fenrir’s big, right? And if we’re going to get a little ring off his finger, we’re going to need to pin him down.”

Omar shrugged. “Or kill him.”

“No! No more killing if we can help it. The reavers are our people, and we’re here to help them, not to kill them.”

“I understand that you think that. But you must understand that the Yslanders in Rekavik are also your people, and your first duty should be to protect them, not the ones who are already infected and are most likely lost forever.” Omar crossed him arms over his chest. “Finding the ring is no guarantee of success. Your trust in Skadi is misplaced.”

“I don’t trust Skadi,” Freya said as she began folding and knotting her cord. “I barely know her.”

“Do you trust me?”

She paused. “I saw your hand heal before my eyes. I’d say that I know you better than I know Skadi.”

“Ah, but I could have been lying to you about who I am and why I’m here,” he said.

Freya grinned. “You could have, but you weren’t. I can tell. Besides, hacking off Leif’s arm was real enough, and I definitely didn’t trust him. So I guess I do trust you. Some.”

Omar nodded and raised his eyebrows. “A reasonable analysis, if ever I heard one. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Not yet. But you will.”

Freya devised a complex snare with her cord, creating a spider’s web across the floor of the ravine in the narrow corner where any pursuer would be forced to slow and turn to continue running down the hill. She hid the cord with dead grass and small pebbles, but the deep shadows from the ravine’s walls hid her trap utterly. Then she climbed up to the top of the defile and found a large round stone, which she rolled to the edge of the wall a few paces downhill of the snare.

“And now?” Omar asked.

“And now,” Freya said, sitting down on her stone, “You need to go up to the top of the hill and start waving that fancy sword of yours and yelling at the top of your lungs.”

“Oh really? So I’m to be the bait then in your little trap?”

“Exactly.” Freya smiled up at him.

“And what makes you think Ivar will come? What if he’s too far away to see or hear me? Or what if he had a particularly large elk at tea time and decides to sleep through the evening completely? And what if I find myself surrounded by lesser reavers?”

Freya drew her favorite knife and nodded. “Maybe he won’t come. That’s possible. But I still think we have a better chance of bringing him to us than of us finding him any time soon. Yell Skadi’s name. Maybe that will catch his ear.”

“Hmm.” Omar began trudging up the hill. “And if I am assaulted by a pack of feral monsters, all by myself up there? I may be immortal, but I’m flesh and bone, just like you. I’ll still be very much alive when they start to devour me.”

“Oh, I’m sure you can handle a few unarmed and unclothed vixens,” she said with a smile. “You can dismember a man with a flick of that sword faster than the eye can follow. I have faith in you.”

“Thank goodness for that,” he said drily. He paused to frown down at her. “And I suppose when the fox-queen is upon me, I should lead him, or her, down here to you.” He grimaced. “What joy. Running. In the dark. And what will you be doing down here? Lying in wait with your spear?”

“Eventually. But first I need to make a cord for the second snare.”

“Make a cord? From what?”

Freya held up her bone knife, and then with a quick sawing motion across the back of her head she hacked off her long shining hair and felt the weight of it vanish from her scalp. The bright silvery strands flashed in the starlight once and then hung from her fist like spun gold. “From this.”

The foreigner merely shook his head and hiked up the hillside in silence.

The huntress settled down on her stone seat to work, quickly dividing her shorn lock into three smaller strands, and then each of those into three smaller strands. She frowned.

It’ll work, but only barely. I’ll have to get close to him. Very close. But it will work.

And she set to work braiding and knotting her hair into a cord. Soon she heard Omar’s voice echoing down from the hilltop, and she smiled as she picked out the various curses and jokes that the man was shouting at the northern hills. She saw the flash of his sword once, but after that she only glimpsed a few glimmers of light on the rocks above.

It took most of an hour to finish the new cord to her satisfaction, and to compensate for how short it was she devised a new trick for her second snare. She pushed her large round stone even closer to the edge of the gully so that it tipped out into empty space, and then she rammed a smaller stone underneath to prop it up just enough to keep it from tipping over and plummeting down into the ravine. And then she tied the end of her hair cord to that smaller wedge stone.

She grabbed her knife and spear and dropped down into the gully again and checked the first snare, finding it just as taut and just as hidden as it had been before. Then she grabbed the dangling end of her hair cord and began fashioning it into a noose.

The first howl split the silent night just as the first pale snowflakes began to fall upon the hill. Freya paused in her work to listen to the bestial cry, wondering what sort of sound it was.

A greeting? A warning? A call to the hunt?

As the snowfall quickened and the ground transformed from a jagged nest of shadows into a smooth pillow of moonlight, a second and a third howl rose to the north. High-pitched yips and barks echoed for many long moments afterward.

Freya crouched down in a cleft in the rock wall so that she was facing uphill with a clear view of the tight corner where her first snare lay hidden by the snow. She clutched her spear in one hand and her cord in the other.

A sharp night wind blasted down the gully, spraying her in the eyes with snow and ice crystals, and she felt her shortened hair flying about her head, lighter and wilder than before, and her naked neck prickled with gooseflesh as the cold air crept over the newly exposed skin.

The stars crept across the sky, the snow continued to fall, and the white drifts grew taller all around her.

Erik, are you at the mill? Are you watching the stars? Or are you locked inside with chains on your hands and feet?

Freya heaved a sigh.

And Katja… oh, Katja.

She shivered.

The night settled over her just the same as a hundred other nights out in the hills, in the mountains, by the waters. Hunting. Stalking. Waiting. Freya settled into the night and let her mind wander, but not home to Logarven and the empty house by the lake, or the tower in Denveller, or the castle in Rekavik.

Marrakesh. Ifrica. Alexandria.

She tasted the strange names one by one, wondering what sorts of people lived in those places. What did they eat, and wear, and do? Were they all brown like Omar? Or maybe they came in even more colors, or sizes, or shapes. Her imagination ran wild, folding together the bits of Omar’s bizarre story with the fairy tales the old valas used to tell of dwarves and elves and trolls.

Skyships made of steel, sailing ships made of dead men’s nails.

Men who could not be killed, and drunken gods who murdered their children.



A deep-throated growl echoed from the hilltop, only to be cut off with a sudden yelp.

Freya sighed.

Poor King Ivar, where are you?

Chapter 17. Killing

Midnight came and went, and Freya sat without moving in a pile of snow as high as her shoulder. Every few minutes she shuffled her feet and pushed the newly fallen snow a bit to each side. The steel spear in her hand was freezing and it was starting to stick to her hand.

From what she could hear, she guessed that Omar had killed four reavers on top of the hill, though she only had a few grunts and yelps to judge by. The foreigner never came down, never called out to her. He just went on shouting at the sky and swinging his bright white sword in the air.

Four poor souls who didn’t even know what they were doing. At least they’re at peace now.

And then she heard the howl. It was a high and clear sound, as pure and fatal as ice. A moment later, a few other reavers answered the howl with their barks and yips and cries, but they were all pale imitations of that first inhuman wail.

So she shook her arms and legs to keep the blood moving, to keep the feeling in her fingers, and she focused on the buried snare in the turn in the gorge. In her mind’s eye, she imagined the beast’s approach.

Now. It happens now. Ivar crosses the snow fields.

The stars turned a bit farther and the snow stopped falling, and the wind died.

He creeps up the hill, his eyes fixed on that white sword. Mesmerized.

She glanced upward, but there was no glimmer of Omar’s blade.

He’s stalking his prey now. Eager. Hungry. But also curious. He’s cautious. Careful. Wary. Hunched down low to the ground, edging forward on his belly. Her belly. Whatever.

Omar’s voice echoed down the hillside again, and the queen’s name resounded loudly in the night.

He’s waiting. Waiting. His heart is slowing. He holds his breath. He’s very still.

Omar stopped yelling.

He strikes.

Omar’s sword flashed at the top of the slope, not just the reflected light but the blade itself shining in the darkness. He was running toward her, a tiny figure illuminated by his deadly weapon, and then he dropped out of sight as he leapt down into the crevasse.

The snow slows Omar down, dragging at his legs, making him uncertain about the ground underneath. Is there a stone? Is there a hole? He second-guesses every step in the darkness, and so Ivar gains on him.

His heart is pounding and he feels the heat of his blood in his face. He’s afraid. He knows that a single misstep means being torn apart by those claws and fangs. Does the fear speed him along, or does it make him careless and clumsy?

The beast snarled and growled, and the man shouted, the sounds echoing up against the black steel of the night sky and distorted by the walls of the crevasse. Freya re-wrapped the cord around her left hand, feeling the strands of her own cold hair scratching her dry skin, and she gripped her spear in both hands, rising into a crouch.

Now, Omar, remember where the snare is. Remember where to jump. Remember!

A slender black figure darted around the corner into view, leaping lightly along a narrow lip of the rock wall just above the level of the snow. Omar held his blazing sword out level over the snow, illuminating the path over the snare, and as he came through the sharp corner he turned to look over his shoulder.

No! Never look back!

Omar’s last step on the rock ledge didn’t hold. His boot slipped off the lip and he plunged down into the snow up to his hip and the man tumbled face-first into the drift.

“Omar!” Freya rose up. He had fallen only a dozen paces in front of her, but she couldn’t move that far without letting go of her cord tied to the teetering stone above her head. “Omar!”

A second shadow appeared in the pass, and then a long sleek snout came into view. Ivar’s head hung above the snow, his jaws open to release his steaming breath past his black gums and white fangs. Between the canine muzzle and the tall ears covered in blood-red fur, Freya saw the beast’s bright golden eyes staring at her.

He’s huge.

She glanced down at the dark hole in the snow where Omar had vanished, and then she looked back up at the deformed king. “Come on! I’m right here! Come on!”

The beast shuffled forward through the snow, bringing his arms and shoulders around the corner, but then he stopped again, sniffing at the snow, sniffing at the ledge where Omar had run before his fall.

“Come on, Ivar! You want Skadi, don’t you? Skadi? Remember her? She left you, abandoned you. Hell, it’s her fault you were stung by the bloodflies in the first place!” Freya straightened up, focused only on the head of the creature.

The great reaver licked its fangs, and said, “You think me a fool? You think me a simple beast?” His snarling voice was broken, deep, and gurgling, but his words rang out clearly enough. “I am a king. I am a god!”

Freya took half a step back.

He can talk!

“I know what I am. Do you, little girl? Pretty little girl…” The monster laughed, a sound choked with phlegm and bile. And then Ivar reached up to the rock walls on either side of the pristine snow covering the snare, and he lifted himself up off the ground. He was clumsy and awkward as he braced his arms and legs across the width of the crevasse, scraping for footholds on the icy ledges, and at any moment one of his claws was slipping and scrambling to reset its grip on the wall. But he did hold. And he did climb forward, far above the snare.

Freya shouted, “I am Freya Nordasdottir, and I’ve come for your ring! That’s all we want. Please, King Ivar, just give us the ring and we’ll leave you in peace! With the ring, we can cure you. Can you understand me?”

Her only answer was a bloodcurdling roar that echoed and shrieked down the gorge.

I guess not.

Freya let go of the cord and took two running steps before she hurled her spear at the giant fox demon climbing through the ravine toward her. The weapon flashed across the snow and struck the beast a glancing blow across the shoulder. He roared and his claws ripped free of the wall, and he crashed down into the snow atop the snare.

Fall! Damn you, fall all the way down!

She spun back to grab the dangling cord behind her as she drew her serrated knife from her belt. And there, not three paces in front of her, was a reaver.

It was one of the small ones, like the ones she had killed in Denveller with Erik. Just a person covered in hair with twisted bones and yellow eyes. Somehow, after seeing the bestial form of the king in all its inhuman strangeness, the common reaver suddenly didn’t look so frightening. In the darkness, she could almost mistake the creature in front of her for a person wearing a mask and a tattered fur coat.

The reaver snarled.

Behind her, the king rose out of the snow, roaring, “Freya Nordasdottir! I am your holy king! Kneel before me and I will give you the blessings of my flesh!”

“And become a monster, like that?” She pointed at the reaver crouched below her.

“One bite from me will make you like that one,” the king growled. “But you are no craven fool. You are a huntress. Stronger, braver than the others. Submit to me, girl, and I will bite you again and again. Ten times. Twenty times. Serve me, and I will make you a goddess like me, little girl. A goddess of the wild! A goddess of the hunt!”

Freya glanced back at the king and saw him rising above the snow, his claws clutching the rock walls of the gorge.

When in doubt, take the weaker one.

Freya dropped the cord and ran, plowing a deep furrow in the snow as she drew a second knife and lunged at the slavering plague victim. It swung its crooked claws at her head to grab it in a violent bear hug, but she drove inside its reach and slammed her knives into the reaver’s flesh, plunging one blade straight up through the jaw into the brain as she slipped the other between the ribs. The reaver went limp instantly, collapsing with its full weight on top of her, driving her down to her knees in the snow.

With a sharp kick and shove, she pulled her blades free and shoved the corpse off of her just as the blood began to pour out of the open wounds onto the ground. The hot blood steamed in the snow, melting round holes in the white drifts.


Gasping for breath and feeling her lungs burning with the cold night air, Freya spun to face the other beast with her two dripping knives. But the king was not just a step behind her, poised and ready to strike her dead. The king was still up in the narrow pass, knee-deep in the snow, and struggling to claw his way forward into the wider part of the ravine.

Her eyes wide with astonishment, Freya slammed her second knife back into its sheathe as she bolted up the slope toward the little nook in the wall where she had waited all night, where her braided cord of hair still dangled. She ran easily over the trampled snow and reached back into the nook for the cord just as Ivar roared and stumbled out of the narrow turn and crashed down into the snow several paces away from the snare.

Freya froze with her knife in one hand and the slender cord in the other. She stared as the huge vulpine monster reared up out of the snow and shook the icy white clumps from its fur. She swallowed, and raised her knife in a shaking hand.

Ivar shook his head again, and suddenly his head snapped to the right, facing her, staring at her with his golden eyes, his entire body visible in the bright starlight. Freya saw that he wasn’t twisted or stretched or broken. His limbs were smooth and massive, a gleaming coat of red fur over sinewy muscles from his broad chest to his long legs. His head was entirely inhuman, entirely that of a fox, long and sharp. And writhing about his buttocks she saw not one but three thick red tails.

His dripping fangs parted and his huge clawing hand reached down between his legs to hover over his transformed sex. “It burns,” he rasped, his claws shaking in the air. “Always burning, always craving, always hungry. It wants… it needs… I need…”

He slowly lowered himself to all fours, his jaw trembling with excitement, his haunches shivering, his hips jerking in short, sharp thrusts. Panting, his huge golden eyes shining in the starlight, the reaver king crept toward her. He lowered his head and raised his buttocks, and whined.

She felt her tiny bone knife in her hand, and her thin cord in the other.

He’s too big. Too heavy. Too fast. It can’t be done.

She let go of the cord and lowered herself into a crouch, gripping her knife so tightly that she could feel her own blood thundering through her hand.

The throat. I can slit the throat before he grabs me. I can kill him just before he kills me. And then it will end. The plague will begin to die out as soon as he’s gone.

I’m sorry, Katja. I’m sorry, Erik. I failed you both. But I can still save everyone else in Ysland, and that’s worth a good death. It’s worth dying for.

So here I come, Woden.

She lunged and the beast lunged. Her knife swept up and his claws swept down. For a tiny instant she looked into the creature’s face, searching for some hint of a man who had fallen in love, and been betrayed, and left to suffer in the wilderness for five long years, trapped between pain and fear and madness. But all she saw were fangs.

A muscular hand grabbed her shirt and yanked her down into the snow, and as she fell Freya saw Omar stagger up with his burning white sword in his other hand. His collarbone had erupted through his chest and his head was tilted back at an impossible angle, but he shoved his head back onto his neck with a crack, and the protruding bone slowly pulled itself back into his chest as he gasped and shook and groaned. But then it was over, and he stood up straight, and lifted his sword.

Ivar screamed and hurled himself at the man, both enormous claws reaching out, his bright fangs yawning wide and his black tongue rising in his open maw.

The white blade slashed in three luminous arcs across the monster’s body, and then Omar grabbed her and jumped down the slope. They crashed down the icy patch that Freya had trampled a moment ago, and they slid headfirst into the body of the reaver she had stabbed.

But they both rose to their knees and looked up the slope in time to see the demon king’s arms peel off his body at the shoulders with a sick, wet sucking sound and thump down into the snow. The beast’s body leaned forward and crashed to the ground. As the shoulders struck the earth, the impact shook its fur and the head tore free of the neck and rolled down the ravine floor until it bumped up against Freya’s boot. She saw the burnt and blackened stump at the severed throat, and the only blood trickling out of the head came through the mouth, not the wound.

For a moment she couldn’t quite accept that it was simply over, that the huge beast was already dead, and that she was still alive without a scratch on her.

“You saved my life,” she said softly. “That was… amazing.”

He nodded and smiled. “Why thank you, fair lady. It was, wasn’t it?” They rose to their feet and stood together for a moment to catch their breath.

“You were dead?” she asked.

He nodded. “Momentarily, I suppose. I hit a rock under the snow. Out like a light. Sorry. Did I miss much?”

“Not really.”

Freya moved first, stepping over the glaring head of the dead king to trudge back up the slope one more time. She paused just one step away from the body. Even dead, even headless, even with its arms lying apart from its shoulders, the corpse was still enormous, unnatural, and terrifying. It looked like four bears sleeping together in a den, stretching on and on, mound after mound of flesh and fur in the snow.

She head Omar’s boots crunching up the path behind her and she started forward again. A quick glance at the claw at her foot showed no hint of rinegold so she circled around the body to the other severed arm and kicked the snow from the long, bony fingers. The light from Omar’s sword came closer and fell upon the body.

“It’s here.” She stared at the metallic gleam between the fox-fur and the ice. “It’s actually here.”

Omar stepped up beside her and looked down. “Of course. Did you really doubt it?”

“Every minute,” she said. “I mean, what were the chances that it would still be on his finger? After five years in the wilderness, shouldn’t it have been smashed or lost by now?”

Omar grinned as he knelt down and lifted the claw. It was three times the size of his own brown hand. “You call it rinegold, for the color of course, but it’s not any sort of gold at all. It’s nothing so soft or malleable as that. Forging raw sun-steel is very similar to forging common steel from iron ore. Challenging, but not impossible. However, once the sun-steel is charged with aether and souls, once it begins to glow with this light and heat, it becomes far harder than steel. When that happens, the sun-steel cannot be reforged or unmade by any common fire or forge.”

Freya nodded at the ring on Ivar’s claw. “That’s not glowing.”

“No, it isn’t. A sword needs about fifty souls to have a steady light in it, and even then it’s a dull orange sort of gleam. This old thing has about ten thousand souls in it.” He glanced at his sword a moment, and then slipped it away into its clay-lined scabbard. With the blade’s light shielded, the ravine was plunged back into the shadows of the night and the pale shine of the stars.

Freya blinked in the sudden gloom, trying to restore her night vision.

“This little trinket probably only has a dozen or so souls in it, and all of them valas, I suppose.” Omar cracked the claw back and forth as he worked the ring of Rekavik off it. He grunted at the task for a moment before Freya offered him a knife, which he used to remove the claw and then he slid the ring easily off the stump. He handed the knife back. “Thank you. You see? Even though his finger grew to be twice as thick, the ring is still perfectly round. It must have pinched off the blood and nerves in this finger though. Ah well.” He tossed the claw aside and straightened up.

Freya sighed.

“Something wrong?” he asked.

“I didn’t want to kill him. I didn’t want to kill any more of them. They’re people. They’re all victims, like Katja and Erik. Someone’s sister, someone’s husband. How many did you kill on the hilltop tonight?”


She nodded. “And he spoke. He spoke to me. He wasn’t quite sane, I don’t think. He was in heat, and very much so. I can’t imagine what that did him, year after year. But he could still think and speak, and… and we just killed him.”

“He must still have so much of the fox’s soul in him,” Omar said. “Enough to transform him so completely into this prehistoric animal, a giant three-tailed summer fox. But also enough for him to understand his fox-soul. These others, the reavers, they’re just tainted a little bit. It must be like a splinter in their minds, just enough fox instincts to confuse them and keep them raving. But Ivar had enough fox in him to be both a fox, and on some level, a man at the same time. He was still in control, to some extent. Fascinating.”

Freya shrugged. “I guess.”

“I’m a little curious what you planned to do with that.” Omar pointed up at the rock poking out over the edge of the ravine wall and the woven hair cord tied to the small stone under it.

Freya looked up and sighed again as she touched the back of her head and felt the strange new shape of her hair.

What a waste.

“After Ivar’s leg was caught in the snare, I was going to throw a loop of this cord over his hand,” she said. “When he yanked the stone off the ledge, it would roll down the slope, pinning him down and stretching him over the ground out so I could get the ring off his hand without killing him.”

“Ah. Well, there’s an old saying among generals. No plan survives first contact with a giant transgendered fox monster.” He smiled.

She nodded back.

What a strange man.

“Come on,” she said, trotting down the path to retrieve the king’s huge deformed head. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

She reached for the head, but froze. There had been a sound. The crunch of fresh snow.


A small reaver leapt down from the ravine wall directly onto the unsuspecting man, knocking him back over one of Ivar’s arms and pinning Omar on his shoulders.

Freya ran up the slope, snatched her dangling hair cord, and jumped onto the reaver’s haunches. It reared back with a scream that was almost human. She wrapped the cord around the beast’s throat and fumbled a single loose knot before a bony elbow smashed her in the ribs and threw her back into the snow with the wind knocked from her lungs. Gasping and wheezing, she reached up and yanked on the cord.

The tiny stone popped free of the wall and the large, round stone rolled smoothly over the edge and smashed down onto the reaver’s head. Stone and bone crashed into the ground with a muted crackle, and the creature stopped moving.

Freya straightened up slowly, clutching her ribs as she regained the ability to breathe. Omar climbed back over the severed arm and wiped at the bloody gashes on his face, which were already knitting themselves back together again.

He gestured at the stone. “I thought it was supposed to roll down the hill.”

Freya looked down at the fresh body. It almost looked human in its hairy nudity, almost like a boyish woman with freakish hands and knobby knees, but she was just too tired to feel anything except the cold relief that she was still alive. There had been too many shocks, too many floods of fear and adrenaline, too many strange sights and sounds, and too many long hours in the dark and the cold. All the sad words she had just spoken over the king’s body seemed hollow and stupid.

“Yeah, well, I thought it would roll down the hill.” She smiled a little.

And then she laughed. She covered her mouth, feeling foolish, but the moment itself was foolish, standing over the monstrous bodies and bemoaning her cut hair and poorly designed snare.

Omar laughed with her, but he stopped himself and said, “We need to get out of here before more of those things come sniffing around.”

The walls of the crevasse were slick with fresh ice and their fingers were too cold and numb to climb anyway. The eastward path led down to the shores of Redar Lake, a place neither of them knew but both suspected to be wide open with nowhere to hide from prowling reavers. So westward they went, climbing uphill through the narrow crevasse until the walls sloped away and they could clamber off the trail and strike out for the south.

They hadn’t gone far when the pale claws of dawn appeared in the eastern sky and Freya was the first to admit that she needed a rest. Omar merely nodded and sat down beside her on the leeward face of a low hillock where very little snow had gathered during the night.

“I’ll keep watch,” he said. “I’m not tired yet. Not that I’m ever really tired.” He held the rinegold ring between two fingers, staring through the yellow circle at the earth at his feet.

Freya hesitated. He may have been an ally, he may have even been a friend, but he was still a stranger. He claimed impossible things, but he had also done impossible things, and she was far from ready to turn her back to him. She considered foregoing her rest and pressing on, running all the way back to Rekavik to deliver the ring so she could sleep in a room where she felt safe.

I can’t. I’m already struggling to keep my grip on my spear. I may not make it all the way back if I try. And besides, I’ll need my wits about me when we get back. When the queen and the people of Rekavik see Omar, and see Ivar’s head, or Fenrir’s head, or whatever they all make of it… well, that’s going to be an interesting day.

So she fell asleep.

When she woke up the sun was halfway to its zenith and a fresh snow was falling lightly through the still air. She sat up and rubbed her eyes, feeling slightly more solid, more real, more focused. Omar sat beside her, rolling the rinegold ring across his palms.

“You shouldn’t play with that,” she said. “I’d hate to lose it now and have to tell everyone that you dropped it in some hole in the ground by accident.”

“It would be no great loss, fair lady,” he said slowly. He sighed deeply and turned a very serious face toward her. “While you were sleeping, I took the liberty of speaking with the dead valas inside it. All nineteen of them. As far as I can tell, this ring is only three hundred years old and none of the wise old souls within it have ever heard of anything like this plague of yours.”

Freya frowned at him. “No, no, that can’t be right. Rekavik is an ancient city, everyone knows that. The valas have served its king for at least a thousand years.”

“I’m afraid the grand, sweeping histories of your capital city have been exaggerated. Rekavik as you know it is only two hundred years old. Before that, it was just another little fishing village of no particular importance.” Omar looked away. “I’m sorry.”

“The valas must be lying to you.” Freya stood up and rested her spear across her shoulder. “They’re no fools. They know you’re a stranger, a foreigner, an outsider. And a man, no less! They must be waiting for the ring to reach a vala before they reveal their true knowledge.”

“No, fair lady. It doesn’t work that way. The souls within a sun-steel object are prisoners, not gods. They cannot deceive or command. And I have more than four thousand years of experience controlling the occupants of sun-steel weapons and trinkets. Trust me, they are telling the truth.”

“But… but that means…”

“It means they can’t help us.” Omar stood and pocketed the ring. “It means we killed poor Ivar for nothing. And it means there is no cure.”

Chapter 18. Questions

Wren lay awake in bed a long time, wrapped up tight in the blankets and squinting up at the gray daylight falling through her barred window. Eventually she kicked off the blankets and looked at her left hand. The cuts still looked like cuts, red and angry and torn. Nothing strange there. But the tiny hairs on the back of her hand looked darker. Or did they? She wasn’t sure. She couldn’t remember ever looking at them before.

She sat up and felt a tiny wave of vertigo, and when she touched her forehead she found it slick with sweat. Wren stared at the beads of moisture on her fingers.

It’s happening. And I slept half the day away, letting it happen.

Slowly, numbly, she stood up and wiped away the sweat. She straightened her clothes and draped her blanket around her shoulders, letting the cloth hang crookedly on her left side to hide her hand, just in case. And then she left the room.

She passed a maid in the corridor, and then a dozen men in the dining hall, and then found Halfdan in the snowy courtyard talking quietly with three of the elderly guardsmen. After a moment he noticed her standing there, watching him, and he turned to her. “Good afternoon to you, little vala. How is your friend?”

For a moment she thought he was talking about the mad woman in the cellar, and she nearly panicked, wondering how he knew that she had found her. But then she remembered. “Katja is fine. She’s fine.” Wren nodded. “Well, she’s the same, anyway. Alive. Snarling. Hungry. I fed her some scraps last night.”

“Good. It’s probably best to keep her happy. A full stomach might go a long way to keeping her under control.” He grinned. “Hell, if she’s anything like me, a full belly will keep her asleep, too.”

Wren tried to smile back, but her face didn’t seem to have the strength to do it. “I need to ask you something.”

Halfdan’s grin faded and he led her away from the guards toward Katja’s cell. “What is it? You look like hell.”

“I didn’t sleep well,” she said. “Last night, I wandered around a bit and ended up in the potato cellar.”

The bearded warrior grimaced. “You heard her, didn’t you? The dark woman?”

“I saw her, too. She didn’t look any better than she sounded.” Wren swallowed. “Who is she? Why is she down there?”

Halfdan sighed. “She’s down there because Skadi wants her down there, and the less said about it the better. I’ll tell you about her someday, maybe. But not today. Best you leave well enough alone, and don’t mention it to anyone. And don’t go back down there again. Understand?”

Wren saw the sorrow in the man’s eyes even as she heard the iron in his voice, so she nodded and he clapped her on the shoulder and wandered back to his men. She was still standing there, watching the men talk, when a woman’s voice said, “Skadi wants to see you.”

It was Thora standing in the doorway that led back into the cloak room. Her dark brown hair hung in carefully brushed locks and braids that shone in the sunlight and framed her pale face and dark eyes like a portrait. Her black dress clung to her body, accentuating her height and the healthy firmness of her arms and legs.

The apprentice looked more beautiful in the morning light than Wren thought any apprentice had a right to look. She certainly had never looked like that when she was tending to Gudrun. Her eyes darted down to her own appearance, noting the stained and frayed black shirt and trousers, the filthy boots, the scrawniness of her arms, and the ragged tangles of her red hair.

“I should wash up first.”

Thora nodded and went inside.

Wren waited a moment for the apprentice to leave the dining hall, and then she went inside, slipping quickly past the tables and men and through the narrow passage into the kitchen. There she found a tin bowl full of warm water and retreated to a corner, earning only one curious look from the cook, and she set about washing her face and combing her hair with her fingers. When she was done, her reflection in the bowl merely looked like a slightly cleaner and wetter version of her usual self. She sighed, and yawned, and thought of her bed.

No. Skadi wants me. I have to be awake. I have to be sharp.

Back in the dining hall she took a moment to swipe at her clothes, hoping that if only she could beat the wrinkles out they would suddenly look as nice as Thora’s dress, and when that failed she sighed and pushed through the heavy curtains into the queen’s audience chamber. It was empty.

“Back here.” Thora held back another curtain at the end of the room, and Wren cautiously stepped through. Inside was a smaller room, one dominated by the queen’s bed, and her chair, and stool, and mirror, and table.

Wren stared at the furniture. It was all wooden. Every leg, every surface, every peg and stick and handle and frame was carved from wood. Each piece had been stained a dark red and waxed and polished to shine like glass, protecting the beautiful swirling patterns of the ancient material underneath. She turned her attention to the woman seated on the bed, but every single impulse in her young body was to reach out and touched the wood, to run her hands over it, to caress it, to smell it, and to learn its secrets.

“Wren, my dear,” Skadi said. “Come, sit with me, my little seidr-sister.” She patted the blankets beside her.

Wren sat down, hoping that she didn’t look too rustic or filthy for her hostess. It was bad enough that she had to meet at all with the person who ordered Leif to kill Arn and his friends, who kept the southern woman in the cellar on the edge of starvation. But having Skadi look down on her as some country simpleton was just intolerable.

The queen said, “I’m afraid I have some unfortunate news to share with you. It’s about your friends, the hunters.”

The young vala felt her legs go cold.

Oh gods, they’re dead. They’re both dead. Freya and Erik. Leif killed them, or the reavers killed them. And that means they’re not coming back with the rinegold ring, and that means no cure for Katja, and no cure for m…

“Leif?” Skadi looked to a second doorway across from the one that Wren had come through. The beautiful young warrior entered.

Wren felt her stomach twisting itself into knots.

Killer! You murdered poor Arn! And Freya! And now I’m going to die too!

He was even paler and thinner than she remembered from their brief encounter two nights earlier. His black hair hung in flat curtains about his lovely face and his unsmiling mouth and his cold eyes. As he moved toward the bed, Wren saw the way his left sleeve flopped against his side.

“He arrived only an hour ago,” the queen said. “Alone. Leif, tell her what you told me. She deserves to hear it from you.”

The young man inclined his head in respect, but only just. “We visited the drill and the pit, and then crossed the mountain and the hills beyond to Glymur Falls. Along the way we encountered a pair of reavers in the night, but we killed them easily enough. Yesterday morning as we reached the falls, we were attacked again, this time by eight or nine of the beasts. One bit my hand, and I was forced to hack off my own arm to escape the plague, but in doing that I fell into the river and was swept away. I awoke sometime later by the river’s edge, found myself a mule, and spent the rest of the day and night returning to the city. I’m afraid your friends are dead.”

The cold pit of horror in Wren’s stomach and all the fear and misery that was reaching its icy claws up her spine, suddenly faded. She turned the story over in her mind, and frowned. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. If a man’s arm is cut off, he’ll soon bleed to death if he is not tended by a healer. How did you survive?”

The warrior’s eyes never wavered. “The freezing cold of the river numbed the pain. And when I crawled out of the water, I set about building a fire. It was tedious work with only one hand, but I succeeded, and when the fire was large enough, I sealed my wound with the flames.” Without hesitating, he shrugged off his shirt and let the tailored cotton slip down to reveal the firm muscles of his chest and shoulder, and the hideous blackened stump of his arm.

Wren flinched, and looked away.

Thora helped Leif back into his shirt as he said, “Your friends were fighting bravely when I last saw them, but I have no hope for their safe return. Even if they did somehow survive the reavers at the falls, I don’t see how they could hope to defeat Fenrir with only two spears.”

“I’m sorry, Wren,” Skadi said. “Not only for you, and for those brave hunters, but for all our people. I was hoping against hope, against fate and reason, that they would return with the ring and we would find a cure for this plague. It was a good plan, and worth the attempt. But now that it has failed, we must face the cold light of day together. There is no longer any hope for the poor creature in the cell outside. Freya’s sister, I believe. We will have to kill her, swiftly and mercifully, of course. Poison would be safest, I think.”

Wren nodded, her eyes fixed on the queen. It was hard to hate the woman at that moment. There was nothing sinister about her face or voice or manners. She was just a woman sitting on a bed, talking calmly, saying reasonable things.

Maybe Arn was wrong. After all, there was a lot of confusion on the mountain that day. Maybe Skadi never gave the order. Maybe Leif did it all on his own.

Suddenly she was grateful that Skadi was there to speak for her. They all knew what had to be done, but someone had to actually give the order and someone actually had to carry it out, and it eased the pain in Wren’s chest to have so many other people there to do those things for her.

If Freya and Erik had died before, back at the water mill, or in Hengavik, or in Denveller, I would have had to make that choice. I would have had to kill Katja.

For a moment Wren saw in her mind’s eye the young vala of Logarven lying on the bed in the Denveller tower. It had been her only glimpse of her before the change really began. And now, she couldn’t remember Katja’s face at all.

“Is there anything I can do?” she asked hoarsely.

“No. But perhaps you might want to get some rest,” Skadi said. “You’re looking a bit unwell.”

Wren sat up straighter and leaned back from the queen. “No, I’m fine. Although I didn’t sleep well last night. I kept hearing a strange voice.”

“Ghosts, no doubt.” Skadi smiled. “We’ve lost so many people over the last five years that the city is almost overrun with the restless dead these days. There’s a new story almost every morning of some distant relative wandering in on the aether mist to tell of the reavers, mostly. How the reavers tore down their home, murdered their families, and killed them. Horrible stories.”

Wren nodded. She felt hot and nearly shrugged off her blanket, but the cloth was rubbing on her injured hand and she could feel it pushing back and forth on the long hairs on her skin.

I probably only have a few hours left before someone sees my hand, or some other change, and then they’ll know the truth.

Then they’ll kill me.

So what’s the worst they can really do to me now?

“Last night I went looking for the sound I heard and I found a woman down in your cellar, a woman with dark skin and a strange accent,” Wren said a little too loudly and a little too quickly. She felt dizzy. “She’s as thin as a spear, and as mad as old Gudrun. She kept saying the word Morayo, but I don’t think that’s her name. Who is she?”

Skadi’s eyes narrowed a bit, but there was no surprise or anger in her expression. She said, “Wren, you told me that you saw the remains of the skyship in Hengavik. Yes?”

Wren nodded.

“The woman you found in the cellar was the pilot of the skyship. Her name is Riuza Ngozi, and she comes from a land far to the south.”

“The pilot? But I thought you said the pilot helped you to build your drill on Mount Esja. I thought she was your friend.”

“I thought so as well,” said Skadi. “But after the disaster that took the life of the king and released this plague, I learned that this pilot, Riuza, had sabotaged the drill. She never wanted the project to succeed. So she made sure the drill would never work for more than a few days at a time before needing repairs. And whenever she made those repairs, she threw out the broken parts.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“What’s wrong was that she was breaking the drill just so she could steal the old parts. After she repaired the drill, she would take the parts to a cave at the edge of the bay where she was building a metal ship so she could escape Ysland and go back home.”

Wren shrugged. “So she wanted to go home. I can’t say I admire her methods, but I understand her reason. And this pilot sounds like a clever woman. So she must have had a very good reason for going to all that trouble to build her ship in secret. She must have had a reason why she didn’t just ask for your help. Or did she? Did she ask for your help?”

Skadi wet her lips. “These foreigners are untrustworthy people. From the stories she told us, their countries are full of liars and assassins, thieves and murderers. My impression was that half of their people are so stupid or lazy that they cannot support themselves, so they labor for others, and the other half of their people are so corrupt and dishonorable that they have to build entire castles just to lock away the criminals.”

Wren’s gaze drifted to the floor as she frowned and shook her head.

That’s insane. How can any country survive when half the people are slaves and the other half are criminals?

“Shocking, I know,” Skadi said. “But true, nonetheless. They are not trusting or trustworthy people. Hence, Riuza’s crime and her punishment. What else could I do? Allow her to go back to her people, her wicked people, and let them return here with more skyships and killing machines to invade our country? I couldn’t allow that. I am queen here, and the safety of Ysland is my responsibility. I had to protect my people. You understand that, don’t you?”

Wren nodded sullenly.

“Good.” Skadi looked at the others. “And now, I’m afraid, we all have a great deal of work ahead of us. Thora, please see to our plague-stricken sister in the south cell. Wren, you are welcome to stay here in Rekavik as long as you wish. If there is somewhere else you’d like to go, you’ll be well-provisioned, of course. And Leif, please remain here a moment. I want to take a look at that arm again.”

Thora left the room with a glare, and Wren stood up slowly, wondering if she ought to go with her and see that Freya’s sister died comfortably.

It’s the least I can do for her. For all of them.

As she stepped through the curtain into the audience chamber, Wren glanced back, thinking she might ask just one more question about the woman in the cellar. But through the gap in the curtain, she saw the beautiful young Leif approach the queen’s bed and strip off his shirt to reveal his milk white flesh and the scarred stump of his arm. Skadi shifted forward to the edge of her bed and reached up, and undid his belt, and pulled down his trousers.

The queen was smiling.

Wren jerked back from the curtain and turned, nearly running into the tall figure of Thora in the next room.

“All I have is mezerea,” she said.

Wren blinked. “What?”

“The only poison I have is mezerea.” Thora pressed her lips together tightly, her eyes shadowed and bloodshot. “It’s been five years since I could just walk outside to gather herbs. I’ve been using up my stores since then, and we’ve been experimenting with poisoned spears and traps on the reavers. So now, all I have left is some mezerea. Is that all right?”

Wren blinked again. “Oh. All right. As long as it’s enough. Mezerea makes people choke. I don’t know how it will work on a reaver.”

“I have enough.” Thora walked away. “Do you want to watch or not?”


“Yeah. Yes. I do.” Wren followed.

“Well, it’s going to take me an hour or so to bake it into a pellet big enough to kill a reaver. I assume you want this to work the first time. There’s no need for her to suffer any more than necessary.”

“No, you’re right, thank you,” Wren said. “You know, I barely saw her face before she changed. Never spoke a word to her. But she was a vala, just like us. She deserves whatever kindness we can give her.”

“Kindness?” Thora frowned over her shoulder. “Haven’t you heard, Wren? It’s the end of the world. We’ve lost everything already, and we’re all going to die horrible, painful deaths here, very soon. There’s no place for kindness here. There hasn’t been for a very long time.”

Wren heard the waver, the soft choking in the tall girl’s voice. But when she put her hand on the apprentice’s shoulder, Thora pulled away and refused to look at her. And as Wren followed her to the herb room, she saw the girl’s shoulders shaking in silent grief.

Chapter 19. Answers

Freya and Omar paused on the southern slope of Mount Esja. She gazed across the southern hills and plains, looking for the ribbon of water, searching for the water mill, praying that she might actually see her Erik standing on some distant hilltop waving his spear at her. But she didn’t see anything except shuddering waves of dead grass poking up through the fresh white snow.

“There’s no point in going back to the city, is there, fair lady?” he asked. “Your sister is already a reaver, and your husband will be one soon, and we don’t have a cure for them.” Omar held up the rinegold ring. “There’s no reason to take this back to Skadi. It’s as worthless as she is.”

Freya turned to look up the slope of the mountain at the black outline of Ivar’s Drill. “I can think of two very good reasons to take it back. Maybe we can’t do anything for Katja or Erik. We certainly can’t do anything for Ivar, or any of the other plague victims. But we can still help the people living in Rekavik, and everyone else in Ysland.”


“By removing the woman who started all of this.” Freya took the ring. “When she gets this ring and finds there is no cure locked away in the old valas’ ghosts, what do you think she’ll do?”

Omar frowned. “She’ll do anything to stay on that throne of hers. She’ll make up some story about how the valas in the Rekavik ring are defying her. And then, maybe after a few weeks or months, she will claim to learn of a possible cure, but one so hard to make that it will take years of work, or maybe some rare artifact or plant that no one will ever find. And sooner or later, everyone will stop expecting her to find any cure at all.”

“Only if she controls the story. If someone presses her, perhaps the hero who brought them Fenrir’s head, then the people will doubt her. And doubt is a kind of weapon, too.” Freya nodded. “And what will happen when you walk into that city, alive and well, five years after she saw you die? Five years after everyone was told that you died?”

The southerner smiled. “Well, that will be an interesting day.”

“I’m glad we agree.”

Omar followed her gaze up to the drill. “Why don’t you go on ahead? Maybe I’ll spend a few hours up there, taking a fresh look at the scene. And it’ll be easier for you if I’m not there when you give the ring to Skadi. You’ll want everyone’s undivided attention.”

“So I’ll go back to Rekavik and make the queen squirm for a while, and then you’ll come knocking on those iron doors with that blazing sword in your hand?”

Omar grinned. “No, nothing so dramatic as that. But don’t worry. I won’t come empty-handed. Good luck, fair lady.”

“And to you.” Freya set off down the path at a quick trot. It was just past noon and a cool breeze was blowing off the bay laden with the scent of salt and seal flesh. More than once her eyes shifted to the south, again searching the snowy hills for the stream and the mill, but she never saw it and she never turned her feet from the path. She reached the edge of the bay with a tight knot in the muscles in her back, but she strode on along the pebbled beach, her spear on her shoulder, squinting across the dark waters at the walled city of Rekavik.

She followed the same path along the water’s edge that Leif had shown her when they left the city, and so she picked her way along the seawall, knowing that dozens of eyes would be watching her from the guards’ posts at the rusting iron doors. Freya took her time, ignoring the first two doors and letting the tip of her spear carelessly scrape and twang against the seawall to make sure she had as much attention as possible. By the time she reached the third door, it was already standing open and a young guardsman stood in the gap with his hands on his sword, and Freya heard at least a dozen others muttering just inside the wall.

“That’s close enough,” the armored house carl said. “Were you bitten?”


“Show me.”

She frowned but didn’t argue as she leaned her spear against the wall and stripped off her coat and shirt to show him her tattooed arms, and then quickly dropped her trousers to her ankles to show him her bare legs. If the sight of her inked skin interested him at all, he did not show it.

Not even a little smile. Erik would have smiled.

He swallowed. “You look all right. How did you survive?”

“By killing them before they killed me.” She pulled her clothes back on quickly and took up her spear. “Now may I pass?”

The warrior didn’t move. He licked his lips nervously, and was about to speak when another, older man stepped out in front of him. Instead of a sword he carried a barbed harpoon in one hand, and this grizzled fisherman said, “We heard you were dead.”

She snorted. “But you can see that I’m not.”

“Where’s your husband?”

It was her turn to pause uncomfortably. “He didn’t make it,” she said softly.

The fisherman nodded.

“And neither did Leif,” she added.

The man grunted. “I’ve heard differently on that matter as well, but I suppose we’ll have to see. You were supposed to be hunting the demon Fenrir. What of that?”

She met his uneasy squint with her own clear-eyed stare and said, “We stalked the beast to Thaverfell, where we built a snare, and trapped him, and killed him.”

A rumble of whispers rose from beyond the doorway. The old fisherman pounded his spear on the pebbles, calling for silence. He said, “You’ll forgive us for wanting proof of that, girl.”

Freya frowned. She hadn’t wanted to tell her story or show her prizes until she stood in Skadi’s throne room, but she could see that she had little choice in the matter. She hefted the leather sack off her back and set it on the ground, opened the ties, and then lifted the severed head of Fenrir high into the air. The glassy amber eyes stared at the fisherman and the men behind him, and the stained fangs hung open in mid-snarl, but the flesh of the nose and jowls hung loose and dead from the skull showing the first small signs of the rot that would soon strip away all but the bone.

The fisherman stepped back from the huge, bestial muzzle and glanced over his shoulder at the other men behind him, but the other men were all silent.

“Let me know when you’re done staring,” Freya said. “This thing is heavy and my arm is getting tired. And I think the queen will want to hear about this, don’t you?”

“Yes. Yes!” The fisherman’s leathery face broke into a wide, bright smile and he shoved his old harpoon up at the sky as he shouted, “Fenrir is dead!”

A great war cry answered him from over the wall, and Freya grinned as she wrapped up the head of the dead monster in her bag, took her spear, and strode through the open door past the beaming fisherman. The street was lined with men, women, and children, and more were coming with each passing moment. They thronged to their doors and windows, and came rushing up the side lanes to stare at her, and to shout her name, and to laugh about the end of the plague.

Freya smiled and nodded to them all as she passed, all the way up to the iron door of the castle wall where two familiar old guards stood chewing their beards. They took one look at the crowd and let Freya pass, but kept the people of Rekavik back in the street. Freya paused in the courtyard, looking at the castle door ahead and the huge crowd behind.

Then she called out to the guard in front of her, “You there! Bring out the queen to see the head of Fenrir!” And she walked back out the door to stand in the street, surrounded by hundreds of cheering voices and joyous faces. And for a few moments, she let herself be caught up on that raging torrent of happiness, of lightness, of hope. Everyone was smiling and cheering and laughing and waving, and she found herself smiling and waving back. It felt wonderful.

Then she turned and saw Skadi stepping out into the street with her tall apprentice on one side and little Wren on the other, and several stern-looking men behind them including the bearded Halfdan. At the sight of their queen dressed in shimmering black and gold thread, the people fell respectfully silent.

“My dear, it’s a wonder and a blessing to see you safely returned to our city,” Skadi said. “I must admit I had little hope that we would see you again, but here you are and from what I heard from this crowd a moment ago, it sounds as though you have something wonderful to show us all.”

“Yes, I do. I bring you a trophy.” Freya set her sack on the ground and again loosed the ties to lift up the huge, deformed skull of the creature they called Fenrir. She held it with both hands over her head and turned slowly so that everyone could see exactly what it was. As she turned she saw everyone’s face upturned to stare into the dim golden eyes and grinning maw of the giant reaver. Finally she turned back to the queen and set the head on the ground. She watched Skadi’s eyes carefully, but saw only composed happiness, exactly what the crowd doubtlessly expected.

“Truly, you are the greatest huntress in all of Ysland,” the queen called out, and the crowd cheered back. “But are you alone?”

“My husband, Erik, did not make it back,” Freya said carefully. Her feet still wanted to turn and run to the water mill, but she knew there was nothing waiting for her there but horror and misery, and an unspeakable task. “And neither did your warrior, Leif.”

Skadi smiled kindly. “But there you are most fortunately wrong. Leif did survive your battle with the reavers and was swept down the Botsna River. He returned to us only a few hours ago and is resting from his injuries.”

A battle with the reavers? So that’s the lie he spun for her… or the lie she put in his mouth for him.

Freya nodded slowly. “Well, that is quite lucky for him. The last time I saw him, I was sure he was falling to his death.”

“We can discuss your adventures later when we celebrate your victory properly,” the queen said quickly, her voice pitched more to address the crowd than to speak to Freya. “But right now there is another matter of even greater importance. With Fenrir dead, the source of the plague is gone, but the plague itself is still among us. But perhaps the ancient valas of Rekavik could help us find a cure. Tell me, Freya, did you find the rinegold ring that our beloved king wore to his death?”

Freya took the ring from inside her shirt.

This almost sounds rehearsed. It’s all a performance, all an act to keep the people happy.

She held the ring out to the queen. “I did.”

There was a brief flash of surprise, the tiniest hint of shock and disbelief, and perhaps even anger in Skadi’s eyes when she saw the golden trinket in Freya’s hand, but it was gone in an instant and the queen continued to play the gracious and joyous hostess of the gathering. “The ring!”

Again the crowd cheered, some shouting Freya’s name and others calling for Skadi, and even a few cries of “Ivar!” as the queen took the ring.

“This is more good fortune than we have known in many years,” Skadi said. “Now with this ancient and powerful relic of our great city, there is hope that we may discover a cure for the reaver plague. If the ancient valas of Rekavik have the knowledge, and they find me worthy to receive it, then we may soon know a lasting peace again. But that is work still to be done in the long days ahead. Tonight we celebrate a great victory!”

The crowd cheered, and the cheers devolved into shouts and laughs and boasts, and in the joyous chaos the smiling queen turned and led her entourage back inside the castle walls. As soon as they were in the inner courtyard, Wren dashed over and threw her arms around Freya’s waist. The huntress grunted at a sudden pain in her bruised ribs, but hugged the girl back.

“I was so scared. When Leif came back alone, I thought you were dead,” the little vala whispered. She leaned back with a sad-eyed smile, and then frowned sharply at the huntress’s shirt. “Is this all dried blood? This is a lot of blood.”

“It’s reaver blood.”

“Ew.” Wren peeled her arms off her friend, but grabbed her empty hand. “And you cut your hair? Why would you… Oh gods, Erik! Is he really gone?”

“No. At least not yet. He was bitten,” Freya whispered.

“By a reaver? Oh no!”

“Actually, no. It wasn’t a reaver. It was a tainted bloodfly. Don’t worry. He’s resting at the water mill we passed on the road. I’ll explain everything as soon as we’re alone.”

Wren nodded. “I have things to tell you too.”

The group moved back through the dining hall toward the many doors and corridors at the center of the castle. The queen paused. “Well, it has been a momentous day, and there will be a feast tonight, so I suggest we all get some rest. I certainly have enough work ahead of me with this ring, and I imagine there is still a long road ahead before the reavers are gone for good.” She nodded and the group nodded or bowed or curtsied in reply, and Skadi passed through the curtains to her audience chamber.

The guardsmen slapped Freya on the back and congratulated her on her kill before wandering off to their own duties. One man relieved her of the sack containing the demon’s head, and Freya gave it away with a grateful nod. In the bustle of that moment, Freya noted that the apprentice Thora turned toward the bedrooms on the right instead of following her mistress to the left. So Freya held Wren back a moment before following the tall girl back to their own rooms.

Wren fidgeted with her fingers.

“Something wrong?”

The girl wrapped her hands up in her blanket and used the fringe of it to wipe the sweat from her brow. “No, nothing. Katja’s fine, by the way.”


“No, I mean, I stopped them.” Wren swallowed. “When Leif came back, we thought you and Erik were dead, and there was no hope of finding a cure, so there was no reason to keep Katja alive. Thora and I went to make a poison to kill her. I didn’t want to, I swear, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say or do. It was all happening so fast. But then, while we were waiting for the poison to set into a pellet, I realized I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kill her. So I ruined the pellet and there wasn’t any other poison left, so now they’re just going to starve Katja to death. Of course, I’ve been slipping her bits of meat through the bars of her cell, so I think she’s all right. For now, at least.”

Freya saw the pain and fear in the girl’s darting eyes, and she laid a reassuring arm across Wren’s shoulders. “It’s all right. I understand. I’m thankful that you saved her, but I would have understood if you hadn’t, or couldn’t. I’ve known for days now that Katja may not survive this. And that I might have to kill her myself.”

Wren nodded.

“Come on.” Freya led her friend down the hall to the bedrooms and they were about to turn through a curtain on their right when she heard a heavy boot tread on the stones behind her. She turned. “Leif.”

For a young man who’d been maimed, thrown into a river, and forced to cross countless leagues of reaver hunting grounds alone and unarmed, he looked surprisingly well. But the closer he came, the more clearly she saw the strain in the lines of his neck and the creases around his eyes and mouth.

It’s a front. He’s a walking corpse. But who is he trying to impress? Me?

“How’s the shoulder?” she asked.

“It hurts,” he said.

“And what did Skadi say when you told her what really happened to your arm?”

Leif frowned.

“Did you tell her?” Freya narrowed her eyes. “Does queenie know who’s out there?”

Leif looked away.

Wren tilted her head and said in a sing-songy voice, “Oh, queenie doesn’t know.” Then she looked up at Freya. “Know what? Who’s out there?”

“Someone who knows the truth about the reavers,” Freya said. “And the truth about Skadi and Leif here.”

“He’s not who you think he is,” Leif said. “He’s a freak of nature. A demon. A liar. A sorcerer. He doesn’t care about you or the plague or saving lives. He only cares about himself, and about his power.”

“He’s a very old man from a far away land, and he has a very dangerous sword,” Freya said. “It’s that simple. And when he comes back here, you’re going to have to answer for the things that you’ve done.”

The young warrior stepped closer to her, and for a moment she saw a glimmer of real steel and ice in his eyes. “Pray to the gods that he stays away. Because if he does come back, you can be sure that I’ll kill you and your little pet before he kills me.”

Freya heard the venom in his voice and knew the threat was real. This was a young man who had spent the last five years fighting reavers, even fighting Fenrir himself.

He is a traitor and a liar and a coward, but he’s also a killer.

She stepped back against the wall and let him pass, and he strode by, his back straight and head held high as he slipped through the curtain into Thora’s room.

Freya nodded slowly.

So that’s who he’s trying to impress.

Chapter 20. Council

Omar Bakhoum sat down in the bottom of the rocky pit in the shadow of Ivar’s Drill and dangled his legs over the lip of the tunnel. The hole stared up at him, the darkness gazing into him in silence.

Near silence.

The tiny buzzing of the mosquitoes kept him scowling and jerking his head away, trying to keep the pests from whining in his ears. He gripped his sword and called the names of his inner council, his ghostly advisors, a few chosen souls from among the countless thousands that resided in his sun-steel blade.

One by one their faces and forms loomed darkly before him, standing on the floor of the pit around him dressed as they had been in life, aged as they had been at the moment of death, and wearing varying expressions of interest, annoyance, and boredom.

An elderly Indian physician with short white hair framing his lined brown face and stooping over his crooked little cane appeared on the left. A beautiful Hellan oracle with curling brown hair and soft olive skin sat on the right in her carefully folded white robes. A little Aegyptian girl dressed in a threadbare gray dress lay on the ground, staring up at the darkening sky and playing with a lock of her black hair.

And the young samurai from Nippon, Ito Daisuke, stood on the far side of the pit, pacing slowly along its edge. His green and black robes were immaculate, and his black hair was knotted at the back of his head, but a few long strands had escaped the knot and hung from his temples in such perfect balance that Omar suspected the youth had plucked them loose intentionally.

All of the others were there as well, as always. The vast multitude of the dead, thousands of souls collected from every nation and every era, hovered in the distance like pale stars, ringing Omar on every side and pressing in with hungry and pleading stares. There were even a few Yslanders among them, plague victims set free of their curse as the shreds of the fox-soul dissolved within the seireiken, as all animal souls did. And they too gazed hungrily at Omar, eager to speak and be spoken to. But he held them all at a distance, as always. He could search them and question them at will, on command, as he had on many occasions searched through this vast library of humanity for answers time and again.

But not today.

He sighed. “For five years, we’ve been trying to unravel this little riddle, haven’t we, dear friends?”

The physician and oracle nodded solemnly.

“We need to try something new, something different. We know the reavers cannot be treated with herbs or leeches, or even with sun-steel.” Omar stood up and took a few steps toward the rusting hulk of the drill. “We can’t pull the fox-souls out of the people. So if we cannot take the contagion out without killing the patient, what can we do?”

“Kill them quickly,” said Daisuke. “Hunt them down, and kill them all. It is the only solution and the only mercy they can hope to receive.”

Omar shook his head. “I don’t believe that.”

“You know,” said the physician, “simply because none of the medicines have worked so far does not mean that no medicine will work in the future. You had only the crudest of instruments and materials in that cave behind the falls. Surely with the help of the valas, with their tools and their knowledge of the plants here, a balm can be created that will soothe both the minds and the bodies of the victims.”

“I doubt that, old friend,” Omar said.

“Perhaps we can bind them,” said the oracle. “Trap them. Control them. Even cast them into a deep sleep, to hibernate until you can find a true cure, if ever. At least then they might find some peace in oblivion, or even in dreaming. Perhaps their lives in this world cannot be salvaged, but in the dreaming world they might live a hundred better lives before their bodies expire.”

Omar smiled sadly. “We’ve been over this before. Even if we could sedate the reavers, even if we could grant them that peace, as soon as the warriors in Rekavik learned that their enemy was vulnerable they would hunt them down and slaughter them in their dens. That’s not the answer I want. I want a real cure. I want to give these people back their lives. All of them.”

“If you can’t get the fox-soul out,” said the Aegyptian girl, “then you should put something else in.”

Omar turned slowly to look at the little ghost lying on her back, wiggling her bare feet through the thin snow without troubling a single white flake. “Put what in, exactly?”

“I don’t know, something nicer. Like a fish-soul or something. Foxes are hunters, right? Kill or be killed. Fighting over the spoils of the hunt. Always competing for things. Food, mates. That’s what’s driving the reavers crazy, isn’t it? All those wild instincts creeping through their brains. Especially mating, I guess. So put something else in there. Maybe a deer-soul. Or even a tree-soul.”

“There are no trees in Ysland,” the oracle reminded her. “But the idea has merit.”

“Put something else in.” Omar nodded thoughtfully. “Something to balance the vixen. Something calm, controlled, stable.” He ran his thumb slowly down his stubbled jaw.

“Trouble.” The samurai stood on the western edge of the pit looking out over the slopes of Mount Esja and the bay below. “Two figures.”

Omar trotted across the frozen earth and snow and stood beside the ghost. Over a league away at the base of the mountain he could see shapes moving in the deep shadows, almost hidden from the fading daylight.

“One is a man with long hair,” said Daisuke. “The other is a reaver. A large one.”

“What?” Omar squinted. “Are you sure? I can barely see them.”

“Strong eyes. The advantages of youth,” the samurai said.

“Your eyes have been dead for over eight years,” Omar said with a grin. “But I believe you. Are they fighting?”

“No. They are standing very close together, but the man has not drawn a weapon. I think they are speaking to each other.”

Omar tightened his grip on his sword.

With Ivar dead, what reaver could possibly be talking to a man?

“Can you see anything else?”

A sharp howl split the silence, and Omar stepped back from the edge. He grimaced and looked at the samurai.

“Strange.” Daisuke paused. “The man is heading back along the edge of the bay toward the city now. The reaver is running in the opposite direction.”

“A meeting?” Omar turned away and walked back toward the hole and his other dead companions. “Could Skadi actually be working with the reavers?”

“If there are other reavers that can speak, then they must also have larger portions of the vixen’s soul,” said the physician. “Enough to have clear fox-instincts and clear human-thoughts, and not the muddled madness of the simple reavers.”

Omar shook his head. “I suppose so, but who?”

“Hey!” The Aegyptian girl sat up, leaving no mark in the snow to prove she had been there. “I want to talk about my idea some more. What are you going to put in the reavers to make them nice again?”

Omar felt his boot knock against something loose on the ground, and he knelt to pick up the hard brown lump dusted with ice crystals. Several tiny mosquitoes were crawling on the lump and buzzing their wings.

“I have an idea of what to use,” Omar said. “And I have an idea of how to deliver it. But we should work quickly. If Skadi is somehow in league with the reavers, then God only knows what she could be planning. But whatever it is, it will not be pleasant for our lovely young friend with the silvery hair.”

“You like her? The huntress?” The little girl scowled. “Her tattoos are ugly.”

“I think they’re quite nice, actually.” Omar picked up a second brown lump covered in mosquitoes. “Now help me look for more of these. We’re going to need a lot of them.”

Chapter 21. Feast

Freya stood at the top of the steps looking down at the iron door of her sister’s cell. The sun was resting on the western edge of the world, setting the sea and sky afire with crimson and molten gold as the eastern heavens draped themselves in princely violet and frozen stars.

My sister is a monster, and I keep her in a cell.

Freya shivered.

Wren shuffled through the snow to her side and stood with her, looking down at the door. She said, “I wish I’d had a chance to know her. If it hadn’t been for the reavers, I wouldn’t have been trapped in that tower. I would have been out in the world, learning and studying. I would have met your sister and traded secrets with her. Stories. Herbs.”

Freya nodded. “You would have liked her. She was always the funny one.”

Wren sniffed.

“You’ve been awfully quiet all afternoon,” Freya said. “Come to think of it, I haven’t heard you talk to the Allfather once since I got back.”

“No.” Wren sighed. “No, we’re not speaking right now.”

Freya glanced at the girl again. She was sweating and shivering, with dark shadows under her eyes, and her breathing sounded just a bit labored, and wet. Freya grabbed Wren’s shoulder and yanked her thick red hair up and away from her face, revealing the tall and pointed ear beneath it. Wren tried to pull away, but Freya held her still as she stared at the ear.

Wren too?

“When did this happen?” she asked as a lump began to form in her throat.

“Last night.” Wren wrenched herself away and Freya let her go. The girl stepped back and kept her eyes on the ground. “I was guarding the cell, and a good thing too, because some men came to kill Katja. But after they left, I went to check the door because it looked rusty. I shook the handle. And I shook the bars on the window.”

Freya glanced at the iron door. “And she bit you.”

Wren nodded.

“I’m sorry, Wren.”

“It’s all right.” The girl sniffed and dragged her sleeve across her nose, revealing her hairy hands for a moment. “It probably would have happened anyway, right? I mean, back in Denveller. They would have gotten me sooner or later. At least this way, I get to live. Instead of being killed by the reavers, I’ll be one of them. I can run away. Far away. I’ll live in the north, and I won’t hurt anyone, I promise.” She dropped her chin to her chest and began to cry.

Freya held the girl to her chest. “Maybe not. That man I told you about, the one who cut off Leif’s arm and Fenrir’s head, he’s working on a cure, a real cure.”

“There isn’t time,” Wren said hoarsely. “I only have another day or so. I should leave the city now, while I still can.”

Freya stared down into the wild nest of red hair resting on her chest, and she saw one of the tall white ears poking up through the girl’s ragged braids.

She’s right. I can’t protect her, even if I lock her up in a cell, she won’t be safe as long as she’s in the city.

“Okay. You’ll go tonight, during the feast. It’ll be loud and dark, and everyone will be drunk, and I’ll make sure you walk out of here and no one will notice. All right?”

Wren nodded. Together they walked back around the side of the castle and saw the men building up the bonfires in the courtyard and setting out benches and tables made from whale bones and tightly bound leather sheets. They continued inside past the cooks and butchers arguing about the food, and they were nearly back to Wren’s room when the girl paused and pointed to the end of the hall. “There’s something else. Something you should know about,” the girl said.

Freya followed her down the hall, and then down a narrow stone stair. When they reached the bottom it was so dark that Freya couldn’t see her hand in front of her face, and she was about to suggest that they fetch a torch when a faint orange glow lit up Wren’s face. The light came from the ring on her finger and it gleamed just barely bright enough to reveal the dim outlines of the stones of the floor and sacks of potatoes around them. They crossed the room, and Wren stopped, pointing to the corner. There in the darkness, Freya saw a gaunt woman with dark skin and curly black hair.

“Who is she?” the huntress whispered.

“Her name is Roosa, or something,” Wren said. “She’s the one who was flying the skyship when it crashed in Hengavik eight years ago.”

Freya darted forward, dragging Wren and her light with her to inspect the woman. “The pilot! Omar told me about her.”

“Omar? Is that the old man with the dangerous sword?”

Freya grinned. “Very dangerous. It’s solid rinegold.”

“What!” Wren stared at her. “There isn’t enough rinegold in the entire world to make a knife. How can he have a whole sword of it?”

“Apparently, there is quite a bit of it out in the world. It’s just very hard to find. In fact, that’s why he came here in the first place, eight years ago. He was looking for more.” Freya turned her attention back to the woman in the corner. “Omar seemed to think the pilot was living in the city. I don’t think he knew about this, though.”

“Skadi said they put her down here because she was sabotaging the drill, stealing parts to build a ship so she could leave Ysland.”

They both looked at the stranger, and the stranger stared back at them with her wide, sunken eyes. She sat at an awkward angle, leaning against the cold stone wall in her ragged, colorless clothes. Her bony hands trembled in her lap, and her breaths were short and shallow.

“I think she’s dying, very slowly. No thief deserves to suffer like this.” Freya reached behind the woman to yank on the chain clasped around her ankle, and found it quite sturdy. “But even if we set her free, I don’t think she’s in any condition to escape, much less survive outside the city on her own. We’ll have to leave her here, for now.”

The dark woman blinked at them. “Morayo.”

“What’s that mean?” Freya asked.

“I’m not sure. I think it’s someone she doesn’t like,” said Wren. “Maybe you should ask Omar. Maybe he knows.”

After a few more moments holding the stranger’s hand and trying without success to coax her into speaking, Freya and Wren left the cellar and returned to their room upstairs. Wren eased into bed with a violent shiver, her teeth chattering.

“Does it hurt much?” Freya asked. She touched the girl’s forehead and found her burning up.

Wren shrugged. “Only when I’m awake.”

“Then get some sleep. I’ll come get you tonight when it’s time to leave.”

Freya spent the rest of the evening in the courtyard as more and more people came inside the castle walls to eat, drink, and sing. The bonfires burned brightly, the people shouted and stamped their feet, and even though she found herself within reach of Skadi or Leif, Freya found herself almost enjoying the evening as stranger after stranger rushed up to embrace her and praise her and thank her.

The sheer noise and movement and press of life, the parade of smiles, the echo of laughter, and the smell of the food stampeded through her. She was a creature of the hills, of long silent nights lying in wait, and long sultry nights lying with her husband. The sound and fury of the celebration swept her along on a current of human joy and relief, the likes of which she had never felt before.

Countless men, women, and children thronged around her to hear the story of the great hunt and the great battle with the demon Fenrir, and she found that with a little encouragement and a little mead, she could tell the story quite well. And she told it truthfully, for the most part.

She let Erik stand for Omar, whom she never mentioned at all, and at the very end of their battle in the snowy ravine she gave Erik a death so heroic and godly that people were soon singing the praises of the Silent Stalker of Thaverfell. But after telling the story three times, others were able to take up that duty, and she found a seat among the guards to watch the festivities and eat, and to keep an eye on the queen.

The women sang songs of love, and the men sang songs of war, and then the women and the men sang in a battling round that ended with more drinking and laughing and more than a few couples stumbling around the corners and shadows to celebrate with even more vigor.

A brief lull settled over the crowd at one point. There was a moment when everyone seemed to be wiping a merry tear from their eye at the same time, when everyone was reaching for a glass at the same time, and everyone was thinking about finding an outhouse or ditch at the same time. And in that moment a small, elderly man stepped forward into the clearing between the tables and cried out, “I sing the song of Ivar Ketilsson, King of Rekavik, warrior, father, and hero to his people.”

As the skald began to recite the epic life and deeds of the dead king, Freya slid over to Halfdan and said, “Father? Ivar and Skadi have children?”

“Not with Skadi. He had a son with his first wife, the one who died. Pretty little thing, too,” the man said. “I liked her. She was nice to me.”

“Where is his son? I don’t think I’ve met him.”

Halfdan shook his head. “Young Magnus led the very first war party into the north after Fenrir killed Ivar, and Magnus was the first to fall. Precious few men returned from that raid to tell the tale.”

Freya felt a cool wave of understanding wash through the ale-mist in her brain. “Was Leif one of those precious few?”

Halfdan paused to think. “Yes, I think so. Lucky little coward.”

Or a lucky little killer. With Ivar gone, Skadi still needed to kill his son for her to take the throne.

“I suppose Ivar didn’t have any other family.”

Halfdan grinned. “Well, except for me. He was my cousin on my father’s side.”

“But then, shouldn’t you be king now?”

“I’m just a soldier.” He shrugged. “What do I know about kingcraft?”

“Highness!” Freya called out over the din, and a few faces turned to hear what the heroine of the hour wished to say to the queen. “Have you had any luck with the ring of Rekavik? Have the valas taught you a cure for the plague?”

The crowd fell a bit quieter still as more faces turned to hear the answer.

Skadi smiled and raised her silver cup. “A worthy question. And the answer is that I have spent the day learning to speak to the souls of my ancient seidr-sisters dwelling in the ring. But there are so many of them, reaching back so far into Ysland’s distant past, that it may take some time for me to find the one who can help us. But be assured, all of you, that I will not rest until I have found the cure.”

Her words earned her a few raised cups and quiet cheers before everyone turned back to hear the skald’s melodic retelling of one of Ivar’s duels as a young man. Freya frowned into her cup.

Omar was right. She already knows the ring is useless, but she’s going to play for time, for months or maybe even years. She’ll use the ring and the possibility of a cure to keep these people serving her for the rest of her life.

Evening turned to night, and the joyful celebration of life and victory slowly descended into a drunken search for a lover to grope or an old grudge to fight over. Somewhere between the beatings and the humpings, the queen excused herself along with Thora and Leif. By that time, Freya was long since tired of the feast and longing for bed, for sleep, for oblivion from all the madness and politics and fear, and even to escape the aching sense of her own betrayal. She felt Erik’s absence so keenly it made her arms ache that she couldn’t grab him and crush him against her at that moment.

The crowd thinned and the last of the songs and stories were told, and the last of the good ale was drunk, and all that was left in the courtyard was a mess of bodies, torn clothing, half-eaten food, and crackling fires that were slowly dying down into smoldering coals and ash.

Freya stood and left the guards without a word, and went back inside the castle. She expected a few interruptions, a few last drunken calls for her story, or even a few drunken advances on the poor grieving widow huntress, but there were none and she reached Wren’s room a moment later.

“Wren, it’s time to go. We’ll make for the seawall, and you’ll be away from the city in half an hour. Are you ready?”

There was no answer.

The room was empty.

Chapter 22. Panic

Freya dashed from room to room, searching the empty beds and the beds that were very much in use, looking for some sign of the young vala.

Maybe she went to the kitchen? Or to check on Katja?

She ran up and down the long corridors of the castle, hissing the girl’s name as loudly as she dared. “Wren!”

But the castle wasn’t big enough to keep her searching for long and soon she was striding back toward the dining hall with a burning ball of fear and confusion in her belly.

Did she try to leave the city on her own?

Freya stopped and fiddled with the handle of her knife.

Did she make it? Is she safe somewhere out there, by herself?

She stared at the iron door that led out to the courtyard and the remains of the feast.

Or did someone stop her, or see her ears, or see the other changes written on her weary face?

Freya hurried across the hall, snatched up her steel spear in the cloak room, and strode out into the cool night air. The heat of the bonfires had scattered on the breeze, and the chilly wind snapped her eyes wide and stung her throat when she inhaled. She glanced around the yard once, but none of the late-night revelers took any notice of her. They were all slumping over each other, wrapped up in their coats, and struggling to drain their last cups.

Outside the castle wall there was a lone guard by the door who nodded at her, but said nothing, and she was about to head for the eastern seawall when a bell began to ring somewhere toward the northern end of the city. And then a second bell clanged to the southeast. And a third rang out to the east.

She turned to the guard. “What’s that bell?”

The grim old man drew his sword as he jogged away from his post. “Reavers!”

Damn it, not now!

Freya leveled her spear at her side and took off after him, running toward the eastern seawall. She saw women and children retreating into their homes with frightened eyes and stern mouths, and she saw men standing in their doorways with stones and hammers and knives. At first she wondered why they weren’t heading toward the wall, until she realized they were no warriors, no house carls. They were fishermen, and stone cutters, and bone carvers, and weavers. And most of them looked just a bit too old or a bit too young to fight a reaver, even if they were given proper weapons. So they were standing in their doorways, preparing to defend their homes and their families with rocks and sharpened bones, in case the warriors failed.

I won’t fail.

Freya raced through the narrow lanes, past other armed guards, and ahead in the darkness she could see torches waving on the walls. The ringing of the bells had risen to a frantic metallic chaos that forced everyone to shout over the din and half the men had to cover one ear to block out the piercing noise. Freya passed all their frozen faces painted red and yellow by the torches until she came near the wall and the press of men, mostly warriors but many fishers as well, all arrayed near the seawall door.

Four swordsmen stood on top of the wall, slashing and hollering curses at the beasts below their feet. The savage snarls and barks of the reavers echoed across the bay outside, and were answered by more curses and screams from the people inside. Within moments there were two more men with spears on the wall, stabbing viciously at the monsters on the beach, and the young boys just behind Freya began whirling their slings and firing stones as big as her fist into the air to rain down just over the wall.

Looking left and right, Freya saw similar knots of warriors at the other seawall doors many hundreds of paces to the north and south, but through all the thunderous noise of the small battles she could not tell how many reavers there were, or how the tide of battle was flowing. As she scanned the scene, a figure caught her eye. A man was standing on the wall farther up to the north, standing halfway between two of the doors, the outline of his sheathed sword limned in firelight.

What’s that fool doing?

For a moment she thought to run to the man and tell him to join the fight, but then her heart softened. Maybe he was seeing the reavers for the first time and lost his courage. Maybe he was weeping for a dead friend.

Or maybe he’d been bitten.

Forgetting the man, Freya pushed to her left, trying to angle around the crowd to get closer to the wall. At that moment a reaver leapt up onto the wall, sinking its claws and fangs into one of the swordsmen. The pair tumbled down off the wall into the city, and a dozen men converged on them both with hammers and harpoons. Freya saw the hammers rise almost as one, and fall together in a chorus of steel. The reaver yelped a high, squeaky cry and the crowd cheered, but Freya winced as she tried to imagine what simple farmer’s wife or fisherman’s son had been deformed by the plague only to be butchered in the streets of Rekavik.

But then she heard another sound, the sound of the swordsman pleading for his life, screaming, “No!” But the harpoons plunged down as swiftly as diving eagles and the man’s scream died. No one cheered at that.

Still the battle raged atop the wall and Freya shoved her way clear at the northern end of the door and looked about for some way to get up on top of the wall, and seeing no stairs or roofs that would help her, she grabbed two young men at the edge of the crowd and had them make saddles with their hands and hurl her up onto the wall. Freya landed in a low crouch with her spear at the ready, and she looked down at her enemy.

A dozen reavers harried the seawall door, all of them clothed in dark red fur and tattered shirts and pants glistening with sea water and blood. They leapt up the wall to grab at the warriors’ feet, trying to tear the men down. But the swordsmen were as quick as they were powerful, stepping and dodging between sword thrusts that soon had the reavers drenched in blood from wounds in their arms and shoulders and heads. Still, the wounds were only cuts, and however much they pained the reavers, the beasts stayed on their feet, snarling and clawing at their enemies.

I’ll have to go down there to make the killing blows. It’s not fair. They shouldn’t have to die, but I can’t just let them kill the men either. And if I have to choose, well…

Freya studied the sheer drop to the dark pebbled beach. It wasn’t that far down, but far enough to break an ankle in the dark.

I won’t last long down there with a broken foot.

A second reaver hurled itself up to the top of the wall and wrapped its long hairy arms around an armored man. The other warriors lunged to grab him, but none were fast enough. The reaver and its prize fell back down to the beach and Freya watched by the light of the stars and torches as the fallen carl was torn limb from limb, his blood sprayed across the ground and his head left to roll down to the water’s edge.

“VENGEANCE!” A voice bellowed over the waves and echoed over the city. “BLOOD!”

Freya’s eyes snapped out to the eastern darkness, peering across the black waters of the bay at the huge shadow of Mount Esja in the distance. And for a moment all of the men on the wall stepped back and stared, wondering at the deep gravelly voice that had erupted as if from nowhere. And then it cried out again,


The reavers snarled and leapt at the men, and the men shouted and stabbed at the reavers, and the voice was forgotten as the battle raged on.

More men climbed the stair to the top of the wall and most of them were seal-fishers bearing their long harpoons, but more than a few of the young boys darted past their minders and scrambled up onto the wall with their slings whirling in their hands. Barbed harpoon blades and heavy stones pummeled the reavers outside the door, and three of them fell dead in short order. But one reaver caught hold of a harpoon as its hooked blade pierced its arm, and the monster hauled the fisherman off balance, off the wall, and into the waiting claws of the reavers. The man screamed for many long moments before he died.

Freya looked toward the castle, looked out over the city, looked everywhere she could turn for some sign of Wren, but it was hopeless. Everywhere she looked was either black as pitch or ablaze with torch fires dancing on countless pale faces that all blurred together in the chaos.

“Are you afraid?” a voice asked.

Freya spun on the narrow wall to see Leif walking toward her. It was his figure she had seen standing alone on the wall just a few moments ago.

“Of course I’m afraid,” she said. “I don’t want to die.”

“Then why don’t you fight?”

“I’m a huntress, not a warrior. I’ve never fought more than one animal at a time.”

“But surely the woman who killed Fenrir can handle a few mongrels?” He smiled lazily, his empty sleeve flapping in the breeze.

“And why are you up here, just watching, while these men die for your city? Or did you lose your courage along with that arm?”

He glared. “What happened to the southerner? I saw the cut that severed Fenrir’s head, I know it was Omar who killed the beast, not you. But where is he now? Did you kill him so you could take the glory of the kill for yourself?”

“There is no glory in killing,” she said.

“Tell that to them!” He gestured to the straining mass of people inside the city walls waving their hammers and torches. “Everyone seeks glory for themselves, but when the weaklings learn their place, then they seek to glorify others. Glory is all there is. The only light, the only joy, the only real treasure. Life is short and painful and terrible. Glory is the only thing worth living for!”

“If you say so.” Freya chanced a quick glance over her shoulder to count seven remaining reavers on the ground and two more men climbing the wall to replace two of the fallen. She looked back at Leif. “We need to help them.”

“Us? A cripple and a liar?” Leif laughed a short and angry laugh. “Go on then, rush off to die. I’ll enjoy the show. I hope they bite you before they kill you. I hope you feel the poison burning you up from the inside before you die. And when you’re gone, everyone will remember who the real hero of Rekavik is.”

“You were never a hero, Leif,” Freya said quietly. “Omar told me what really happened at the pit. I know who Fenrir was. And I know that you killed all the witnesses so your vala-queen could keep her throne.”

A hideous sneer contorted the features of the beautiful, pale warrior. He drew his sword. “I thought he might tell you. After all, that’s why we’re here now.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I’ve been waiting here for you, woman,” he said. “I’m here to give a tragic but fitting death for the hero of the hour. What better excuse, what better scene for your execution?” He swept his sword out toward the desperate battle for the seawall door.

Freya snapped her spear down to point at him. “Your city is under siege, and all you want is to kill me?”

“Of course.” He smiled. “But I can’t kill you here on the wall, can I? Someone might see. So if you want your little friend to live through the night, you’ll jump down there and fight those bloodthirsty animals to the bitter end.”

“Wren? You took Wren? Where is she?”

He shook his head. “Whether she lives or dies is up to you now. Die a glorious death fighting the reavers, and Wren lives to see the morning. Or you can die a traitor’s death right here at my hand, and I’ll kill her on my way to bed. Skadi seems to like her, but I don’t need yet another vala in this city trying to give me orders. So choose!”

“Damn you. You’ll just kill Wren either way!”

“Maybe.” He shrugged. “It all depends on my mood. I don’t know. Maybe I should keep her alive either way. She might be pretty if she learned to use soap. And I’m willing to bet she’s a virgin, too. That might be fun, eh?” Leif pointed his sword at her. “So what will it be?”

He’s a coward and a liar.

Freya narrowed her eyes, and jumped. She jumped to her left, inside the city, with an eye on the distant castle walls, but she was barely a moment in the air before a hand grabbed her by the belt and wrenched her backwards. Freya fell back and down, slamming her hip on the top of the wall as she tumbled over and fell to the pebbled beach below. She landed on her side, thumping hard on the unforgiving stones with her steel spear clanging loudly beside her. But her head was cushioned by her arm so while her entire right side was throbbing with pain, she was able to look up with clear eyes. Leif stood high above her, picking up his dropped sword from the top of the seawall.

He actually did it. He threw me off the wall in front of everyone.

A low growl snapped her attention to the beach where two of the reavers had seen her fall and were loping across the uneven stones toward her. They howled in triumph, their golden eyes blazing in the darkness.

Freya staggered up to her feet and clutched her spear in both hands. She was far from the torches and had only the stars to shine on her attackers. There was a sheer stone wall on her right and the freezing waters of the bay on her left. And there was no Erik or Omar at her side.

When the first reaver reached her, her instincts took over and she set her feet and plunged her spear cleanly through its chest. The beast flailed and shrieked once, and then collapsed, its dead weight nearly yanking the spear from her grip. But as she planted her boot on its ribs to pull her weapon free, the second reaver leapt at her.

With her heart in her mouth and an icy chill slicing down her spine, Freya ducked to the ground, still gripping the shaft of her spear, leaning it forward. The flat butt of the spear caught the charging reaver in the shoulder and the creature stumbled off balance into the shallow black waves, splashing loudly.

But in the moment that it took the reaver to turn back around, Freya grabbed her serrated bone knife and jumped onto the reaver’s back, wrapped her legs around its waist, and sank her blade into its neck. The reaver reached back and clawed at Freya’s arms and shoulders, but she tightened her legs around its body, and wrenched her knife back and forth as hard as she could as the hot blood poured over her hands.

The claws fell limp in stages, weaker and weaker, and then the reaver pitched forward into the cold waters of the bay. Freya rolled off the body, choking on the salt water as it stung her open cuts. She stood up and found the night air even colder on her wet skin, and for a moment she stood very still, looking at the body lying face-down in the water, wobbling on the waves.

Down the beach outside the seawall door, three reavers hunched over the bodies of the fallen warriors and the slaughtered beasts, gnawing on the hot flesh with their dripping fangs and cracking the bones to drink their marrow. Above them, the exhausted swordsmen stood gasping and trembling, some leaning on others for support, and one man staggered aside to vomit on the top of the wall.

If it was any other enemy, they would be pouring over the wall to slaughter these creatures on the beach. But they’re afraid. Not afraid of dying, not afraid of pain. They’re afraid of being changed, of losing who they are, and what they are. This plague has stolen their courage.

Freya sloshed as quietly as she could up out of the water and stood dripping in the cold night air. She wrenched her spear free of the reaver on the strand and felt how suddenly tired she was. She had eaten too much at the feast, and drunk more than she was used to, and even with the sharp ice wind in her eyes and the freezing water running down her back, her eyes were beginning to droop.

For two days she had marched across the hills, and then lain awake all night to battle Fenrir, and then run back again, only to find herself alone on the wrong side of a wall with three snarling reavers between her and the door.

And Leif is still inside.

And Wren is too, somewhere.

And my Erik is out there, by himself.

She started walking toward the door with one eye on the slavering creatures and one eye on the men above. After a moment the men saw her approaching, and some tried to wave her back, but she shook her head. One of the men had a harpoon in his hand.

They need to start throwing those harpoons instead of just stabbing with them.

She waved to him and tried to signal that he should hurl his weapon down at the reavers. He seemed unwilling to let his only means of defense out of his grip, and it took several gestures, but eventually he nodded and turned to wave behind him. Two more young men climbed up beside the spear-fisher with slings in their hands.

That would have been so much easier with Erik.

She nodded at them, and they nodded at her, and she raised her spear, and screamed.

The harpoon flew first, splitting the first reaver’s skull and skewering it into the ground. Two sling-stones hit the second reaver, which howled and skittered back from the wall toward the water. And the third reaver turned on all fours to growl at Freya. She hurled her spear, and it plunged straight through the creature’s open maw. The reaver snapped over backward and fell flat on the beach, its arms and legs twisted at unnatural angles.

The remaining reaver took another pair of sling-stones to the head and it yelped in pain and scrambled back into the water. Freya jogged up to the locked door and drew her knives in each hand. At her feet were the broken, mangled, and partly devoured bodies of five or six men, their limbs tossed everywhere, their blood still glistening and steaming on the stones. And beyond the carnage hunched the last reaver, alternately snarling in hatred and whining in fear.

Freya slowly lowered her knives.

The reaver snapped his fangs at her once, and then loped off through the shallow water, vanishing into the night.

A howl rose over the water, a long clear cry that ululated on and on, and Freya shivered as she listened to it echo long after the unseen beast fell silent. And then it cried out again, this time roaring with a man’s deep grating voice, “JUSTICE!”

The word echoed again and again across the dark waves.

Behind her the door clanged and groaned, and she stepped back inside the wall, her arms and back quivering with fatigue, her vision bleary, her skin prickling with gooseflesh as the water of the bay continued to dribble and drip from her soaked clothing.

There was no cheering inside. There was only relief, weary smiles and quiet sobs and distant voices shouting in the dark, searching for loved ones, searching for answers.

A warm dry blanket was thrown across her shoulders. Men were talking to her and patting her on the back, some asking about the fighting and others wondering at the bellowing voice. Freya shuffled through them, gently pushing her way through all the bodies and faces, trudging toward the castle.

An unfamiliar youth with fair hair and an earnest smile hurried up beside her and placed her spear in her hand. She felt the freezing steel in her naked fingers, felt the weight of it pulling down on her shoulder. Freya bared her teeth and shivered.

And this damned night still isn’t over yet.

Chapter 23. Lies

Freya was nearing the castle wall with a small entourage of house carls, fishermen, and young boys who still seemed to have too much energy in them when she heard the shouts coming from the south end of the city. She paused to listen, a weight in her belly, fearing that more reavers had struck the south wall, but there were no bells ringing. Compared to an hour ago, the city was nearly silent with exhaustion and grief.

But the small angry voices were shouting, and they were coming closer, and Freya waited in the castle courtyard, amid the forgotten and trampled remains of her victory feast, to see what was coming. Half her heart wanted to chase down Leif, to find Wren, to put an end to the cancer inside the city. It was the right thing to do. Her blood cried out to her weary bones to keep going, to deliver some sort of justice to these people.

But there was a shadow in her mind, as well. A shadow that whispered that Wren might already be dead, and even if she wasn’t yet she would be soon, one way or another, and that she was beyond helping. And the shadow whispered that even if she killed Leif, it would only make more trouble for her here, trouble that she didn’t have time for. Because all she really wanted was to run out into that black night, over the hills, and down the stream to the water mill where her Erik was waiting for her.

He doesn’t have much time left. I should be with him, in his last moments, and I should be there to silence his pain, when the time comes. And to hell with the rest of the world.

But the voices in her heart and in her head somehow never took hold of her, and so she stood there in the dark and the cold, waiting for the shouts to arrive with whatever new pain they might bring.

Just as the band of newcomers began to come through the iron door in the castle wall, Freya saw the inner door open and out came Skadi with Thora at her side, but there was no sign of Wren.


Freya spun to see Halfdan crashing through the crowd and snatching up the southerner in a bear hug. The warrior laughed and put the man down, and Omar stumbled back with a smile. The huntress blinked. “Omar?”

It must have been him shouting over the bay! But why?

He sauntered forward and clasped her arm. “Ah, you made it back, fair lady. Good, very good. I was worried when I heard the reavers howling this evening, and I saw them skirting the bay, making for the city. But they were leagues ahead of me, beyond my reach. I take it the battle went well?”

“No thanks to you!” Leif yelled from behind the queen. The young warrior strode into the courtyard and drew his sword. He shouted to the crowd, “Omar Bakhoum was a loyal friend to our king and queen, right to the bitter end when Fenrir killed him. The queen and I both saw him fall! This is not Omar Bakhoum, it’s a demon! He must have led the reavers here tonight. He’s in league with the beasts!”

Freya rolled her eyes, but to her amazement dozens of angry voices rose to support Leif’s claims, echoing his story about the death of the king and of Omar. There were shouts to kill Omar, and others to exile him, and others to sacrifice him on Mount Esja to appease the Allfather.

“No, no!” Freya shouted over the din. “He’s lying. Leif is lying to you all. He’s been lying to you for years. Fenrir didn’t kill Omar. It was Leif who struck him down. The beast from the pit killed three men that day, and Leif killed the rest so there would be no witnesses, no one to tell the truth of what happened on the mountain!”

The crowd fell silent. Most of their eyes glared darkly at her, lips curled and ready to shout her down, but for a moment they listened.

“But Omar survived and he ran away,” she said. “He went to the vala at Glymur Falls, and there he stayed all this time, for five years, trying to cure the plague on his own, living in fear for his life should Leif ever find him again.” She glanced at the southerner and saw a sort of nervous amusement in his eyes. But he gave her no other sign of what he might want her to say, or not say.

How much should I reveal? Can I tell them that Omar is immortal? Can I tell them that Fenrir was really Ivar? How much will they be willing to hear, or believe? And what will they do to us, whether they believe me or not?

“And we did find him, me and Erik and Leif. Leif drew his sword, and Omar cut off his arm and let him fall into the river. That’s what really happened. And Omar was the one who struck off Fenrir’s head when we trapped the beast. Omar is your champion, not me, and certainly not Leif!”

The following shouting match was deafening. Everyone had an opinion or a question, everyone took sides. Some believed Freya, in whole or in part. Some stood by their warrior, Leif. And some still wanted to kill Omar on the mountain and pray for an end to their nightmare. But it was the voice of the queen that ended the fighting.

“My people, it has been a long and tiring day, full of victories and tragedies. Freya has brought us the head of Fenrir, and the reavers made us pay for that in blood tonight. But we prevailed, as we always have and always will. And now Omar Bakhoum has returned to us. Look at him!”

She stepped forward and put her hand on his shoulder. “He’s no demon, no monster, no ghost or trick of the light. He’s alive, and he has returned from the wilderness, no doubt after surviving unspeakable horrors and perhaps having done great deeds as well. I will question him, and you will all know the truth of the matter soon enough. But there will be no more killing. There has been enough blood spilled in Rekavik tonight. Go home, and rest easy knowing that you have such heroes as these to defend your city.” She extended her hands to touch Freya’s and Leif’s shoulders. “Good night, and may the Allfather grant us a long rest from our labors.”

Then she nodded to Omar, and turned back to the castle. Skadi led the procession of guards and valas inside, and Freya followed at Omar’s side. But in the middle of the dining hall, the guards seized Omar’s arms.

“No!” Freya tried to pry them off of him, but Leif’s sword was suddenly at her throat, pushing her back against the wall. “What’s going on?”

“A very good question,” Skadi said. She stood before Omar, studying him. “You haven’t changed a bit, have you?”

“Never if I can help it, Highness,” Omar said smoothly. “I used to revel in surprises, but such is a pastime for younger men. These days I strive to avoid new things at all costs. They upset my digestion.”

“It really is you, isn’t it?” The queen leaned close to his face. “I saw you die, and yet here you are, all too well. Is it true what the girl said? Did you kill Fenrir?”

“Indeed it is, all too true. I did kill… the beast you called Fenrir.” Omar smiled thinly. “Though I must admit, I expected a warmer reception for all my hard work.”

“Your reception is still very much in question,” Skadi said. “Why are you here? Why come back now?”

Freya turned her attention to Leif and the blade at her throat. The young warrior was facing the queen, but was watching his prisoner with a sidelong squint.

“I took the ring from Fenrir’s hand,” Omar said. “And I spoke with the ancient valas of Rekavik. Have you?”

Skadi hesitated. “I did. Briefly.”

“Then you already know, Highness, that none of your exalted predecessors know anything about this plague. They have no answers for you, no cure at all.”

“That remains to be seen,” she said sternly.

“Perhaps it remains to be seen by you, but I have seen it clearly enough, and I have far more experience speaking with the dead. But if you have forgotten that, you are always welcome to inspect my sword again.”

The queen’s eyes flashed down to the grip of the rinegold sword and an uneasy look crossed her face.

Freya wet her lips.

Skadi’s held that sword before, and she saw whatever it is that Omar sees when he wields it. And it scares her!

“But there is some small cause for hope, Highness,” Omar said. “If your friends would be so kind as to stop hurting my arms, I’d be happy to tell you why all your troubles are behind you.”

The queen frowned a little deeper and stepped back from him. “You’ve come to talk about the king.”

“No, no, not a bit,” he said with a smile. “I’ve come to talk about your reaver problem. More specifically, I’ve come to talk to you about bloodflies.”

Skadi hesitated a moment longer, then nodded to the guards and they released Omar’s arms. The southerner rolled his shoulders and massaged his elbow.

“Well?” the queen prompted him.

“Hm? Oh yes, the flies. Are you quite sure you want to discuss it in front of so many people?” He glanced around the dining hall at the guards and the valas.

“I’m not afraid of your words, Omar. Are you?”

He shook his head. “Not at all. Well, I won’t bore you with all the details, but the salient point is this. I have, at this very moment, a nest full of an ancient breed of bloodflies busy as bees, laying eggs and raising their young just as fast as they can. I left them plenty of food and water, and built a charming little gazebo over them with some mud.”

He gestured whimsically. “Well, perhaps charming is a bit of a stretch. But it will keep them reasonably safe until there are so many of them that they can break out of the nest on their own through sheer brute force.”

“I hate bloodflies,” a guard muttered.

“And well you should, my burly friend, well you should. Nasty little creatures, as we all know. However, they do have a very useful skill in that they drink the blood of their victims, and these ancient bloodflies have an added virtue. They can drink the aether in the blood as well.” He paused to give Skadi a long, stern gaze.

Freya saw the understanding dawning in the queen’s eyes.

But is he telling her the whole truth, or a half truth, or none at all? I can’t read him.

“They’ll hatch soon?” she asked.

“Hours, mere hours,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything breed so quickly.”

“And when they hatch from this nest of yours, what will they do? Did you give them a taste for demon blood? Will they pull the plague out of the reavers and return them to their normal selves?”

“That was my first thought,” he said, rather seriously, his lips tense. “That was what I hoped to create. A true cure. But you can’t separate this disease from its host. You can’t take the bad blood out and leave the good blood behind, so to speak.”

“A poison, then,” the queen said. “The flies will infect the reavers with some disease that will wipe them out?”

“Not a poison,” he said. “A vaccine. If these flies of mine bite one of you, you’ll be protected from the reavers’ venom. It will be impossible for you to be turned into one of them. And if the flies bite a reaver, it will calm them. Or maybe pacify them. Actually, I don’t know exactly what will happen to them, but it will certainly be an improvement. I didn’t exactly have the time or materials to test it.”

Skadi paced a few short steps back and forth in front of him, her long black dress swishing across the bare stone tiles. “How did you make this vaccine, exactly?”

“With great skill, Highness.”

The queen frowned at him. “And where is this nest, exactly?”

“Close by, Highness.” He rested his hand on his sword, and the guards jerked forward, but Skadi waved them back, and he nodded his thanks to her. “You’re trying to decide whether to trust me, whether to believe me. I remember this same moment from when I first arrived and I told you who I was and where I came from. You doubted me then just as you doubt me now. And I know there is nothing I can say that will truly persuade you. So, Highness, I suggest we go to bed.”

Skadi slapped him.

Omar winced and touched his cheek. “My word…” And then he feigned realization, overplaying the part. “Oh goodness, no! Did you think I meant you and I, together, in bed? No, no, no. Whatever in the world would lead you to think that?” And his eyes snapped to the right to look at Leif for the first time since he arrived.

Leif swallowed, his eyes darting to the southerner. Freya grabbed his arm and bent his hand back, knocking his sword to the ground. Leif yanked himself out of her grip and stood a few paces away, glaring at her.

“You took your eyes off her. What did you expect?” the queen said dryly, though her gaze remained fixed on Omar. “I do believe you have something prepared. Whether or not it is truly meant to solve the reaver plague, I don’t know. It may even involve the bloodflies. You were ever one to muddle a lie with the truth. But I don’t believe you left your precious package unguarded in a hole on Mount Esja, or that you would leave your grand design to chance buzzing about on the wind. It’s closer than that, isn’t it?”

“As close as it needs to be, Highness.”

“Inside the city.” She turned to the guards. “Search the south wall, and retrace his steps as he came through the city from the gate to the castle. Look in open sacks, or on the low roofs, or in the shadows between the houses. Anywhere he might have easily tossed something as he walked by.”

The house carls frowned. “What are we looking for?”

“Anything that looks out of place.” Skadi paused. “But it probably is a bloodfly nest. And there may be more than one. Go. Hurry. Get as many men as you need.”

The guards hurried out, leaving Omar smiling in the center of the room. “I always said you were a very clever woman, Highness. Intelligent, educated, shrewd, suspicious, and untrusting. But you’re still playing the same games by the same rules, aren’t you?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that you’re still dealing in power and control.” Omar winked at Freya. “Always trying to protect what you have while trying to get a little more for yourself. And that’s perfectly reasonable, as long as that’s what everyone else is doing, too. But I don’t think you’re prepared to deal with someone who wants nothing for himself, and cares nothing for what you have.” He reached into his sleeve and pulled out a small ball of dried mud.

Skadi drew back behind Thora as though preparing to use her as a shield against the brown lump in the man’s hand.

Omar laughed. “Are you really so afraid of-”

Leif snatched the ball from his hand and ran down the length of the hall and out the front door. Omar spun, staring after the one-armed youth. “No! You idiot!”

Freya gave Omar one last worried look, and she ran out the door after Leif.

Chapter 24. Truths

Freya flew out the door, across the courtyard, and into the streets of Rekavik. Despite the late hour, there were still dozens of people in the lanes, standing in knots around the torches and open doorways, talking and glaring as they shivered in the night air. As she ran by, Freya saw curious and angry and exhausted eyes rising to follow her, and mouths opening to speak to her, but she had no breath for them.

Leif wasn’t far ahead. She could see him darting left and right around the people in the road, only thirty or forty paces ahead, but the warrior ran with the tireless strength of youth, and of one who had not spent the last two nights slaughtering reavers.

My spear!

Her hand felt light and naked at her side, bouncing along with no warm, sweat-slick steel clutched in it.

Maybe it’s a blessing. I don’t think I could make it very far with the extra weight.

Her legs were beyond tired, beyond burning, beyond shaking. They were cold and hollow, almost numb from the unending abuse. A lifetime in the eastern hills tracking deer and bear and birds had made her a tireless walker and hiker, but not a runner. Before the first reaver appeared in Logarven and attacked Katja, the last time she could remember running was when she spooked an old snow bear and had to bolt from its den and let Erik take the animal down with his spear.


She stumbled around a corner, losing a pace or two. But the chase went on, and on. The people of Rekavik had barely a moment to look up before the black shadows of Leif and Freya flew past with the heavy rhythm of their huffing breaths and thumping boots.

Dimly she was aware that they were running north through a part of the city she hadn’t seen before.

Not south to the new wall, not east or west to the seawalls. North. What’s north except the bay? The bay!

Damn it!

“Leif!” She screamed with what little wind was hovering in her tired lungs. “It’s a cure!”

The youth ran on in silence.

That stupid bastard!

She could see him pulling even farther away, leaping lightly over sacks and rocks and holes in the road as gracefully as an elk.


He dashed around a corner, out of sight, and for a moment the echoing beats of his footfalls vanished, leaving Freya to hear only her own boots on the stones and the soft shushing of the bay on the nearby beaches and jetties. A heavy wave crashed up on the rocks, and over the roof of a small house Freya saw the white spray sparkling in the starlight.


She drew her knife in her shaking hand and turned the corner and saw the young warrior stumbling to a halt at the end of the lane where the stones ran down into the dark waters of the bay. He leaned back with one arm, and she realized he was about to hurl the bloodfly nest into the sea.

She hurled her knife with a desperate prayer in her heart and a broken scream on her lips. “NO!”

There must have been something different in that last shout, something ragged and raw and vicious that startled the youth, because he hesitated in mid-throw to look back over his shoulder. He hesitated, and Freya’s knife ripped into his thigh. Leif snapped backwards with a wordless cry, slamming down onto the foam-kissed stones, twisting and shuddering.

Freya leapt the last few steps and crashed down on top of him, crushing his wrist and fingers in her two hands, sinking her jagged nails into his flesh. “Give it to me,” she gasped, struggling to catch her breath. “Give it to me!”

“No!” He twisted and rocked and kicked beneath her, but without a second arm to grapple with her, he had no leverage to push her off or get control over the muddy nest in his hand.

Freya bore down on his neck with her elbow as she kept both hands digging deeper and tighter in his arm and hand and fingers until dark beads of blood glimmered on his pale skin and trickled down over her nails.


His fingers cracked open, shaking.


Leif shrieked and kicked with both legs, rolling both of them together in a vicious tangle into the cold sea foam, and he smashed his hand down on the wet stones. The mud ball burst apart and Freya saw the dark splatter of tiny legs and wings glistening in the starlight.

“No!” She yanked his arm back up to stare at the dead bloodflies with every frayed nerve in her body screaming out, It’s isn’t fair!

But a sharp buzzing whine in her ear made her jerk to the side, almost rolling off her prey. And then something bit her bare hand. And something bit her neck. And her ear.

Freya leapt up and ran back from the water’s edge, trying to swat away the flies without smashing them.

Damn, that stings!

Leif jerked from side to side before getting his feet under him and staggering up and away from the smashed nest. He limped and hopped with Freya’s bone knife still hanging from the gash in his thigh as he tried to shield his head and swat away the flies. Freya grabbed a damp tarp from a pile of fishing tackle, waved it through the air once to fan away the flies, and then threw the tarp over Leif as he stumbled to his knees. She also reached down under the tarp and yanked her knife out of his leg, and was rewarded with a pitiful yelp and moan.

A stiff breeze blew in off the bay and the buzzing of the flies faded into the distance, and she hoped that they were moving back toward the center of the city, and not scattering out to sea to die.

When she was sure they were gone, she pulled the tarp off of Leif to reveal the shivering, coughing, bleeding wreckage. The blood shone brightly on his leg, and his arm was shaking as he tried to hold himself up with it.

After a moment he leaned back and looked at her. “Am I supposed to thank you?”

Freya glanced at the tarp and tossed it aside. “I didn’t do it to help you. I did it to save the bloodflies. I didn’t run all this way just to watch you swat them to death.”

She took a long, deep breath and exhaled slowly. The burning in her lungs was gone and the throbbing in her legs and back were fading quickly. She was still bone tired, but the edge was gone. She didn’t feel as raw and miserable as before. She took another breath.

The sea air can do wonders, I suppose.

Freya leaned back against the wall of the house behind her and took another long breath. “Well, I suppose I can either kill you now, or I’ll have to drag you back to the castle, don’t I?”

Frowning, she pushed off the wall and walked over to Leif, but the young man took a long steady breath and rose to his feet. He was breathing easy now, his whole body relaxed. Even the cut on his leg seemed to be bleeding less.

Leif blinked and looked her in the eye. “That damned fool was telling the truth, wasn’t he? He really did make a cure, didn’t he?”

“A vaccine.”

“Whatever,” Leif snapped. “The point is, it works. Look at me. Look at you. You were dead on your feet a moment ago, and I could barely sit up. And now we’re both fine, just fine.”

Freya looked over at the smashed lump of the nest and the flies that hadn’t survived. “Why’d you take it? Why try to destroy it?” Another fly nipped at her neck, and she grimaced, straining to keep herself from slapping at the pain.

“I thought it was more of the ones that bit Ivar, the ones that brought the plague.”

Freya nodded. “You thought Omar wanted revenge against you and Skadi?”

“Of course! Who wouldn’t?” Leif blew out a long breath and stood up a bit straighter. There was no trace of pain or fatigue on his face now. His expression was one of pure contempt and cold steel. “I split the man’s chest with my own sword. I saw him fall. He should be dead. Maybe southerners keep their hearts on the other side. Who knows? But what sort of fool would I be to believe that he’d been out in that cave for five years trying to cure the plague and not dreaming of killing me?”

“A trusting fool,” Freya said quietly. “Otherwise known as a good man.”

Leif chuckled. “Well, I suppose that isn’t me.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Don’t be so smug. I’ve known good men. Honorable men. Valiant men,” Leif said. “And I watched them die horrible deaths on the battlefield and in blood feuds, ever since I was a boy. Oh sure, they’re remembered as heroes. They’re remembered in songs. They’re remembered by their sons. But they’re dead all the same. And as much as I enjoy the women and the songs and the feasts, I enjoy being alive even more.”

“No one wants to die,” she said. Her knife was still in her hand, still dripping with his dark blood.

“No, but that’s not the fear anymore, is it?” He took a few casual steps toward the water. “In this war you might die, maybe even torn to pieces and eaten while you’re still alive. Or you might be bitten. Infected. Forced to watch as you turn into one of them, into a mindless beast, listening to your bones crack and your skin stretch and your hair bristle as you slowly go insane.” He swallowed loudly.

“It’s a hell of thing to happen to a person,” she said. “A hell of a thing to live in fear of for five years.”

“Hell is right.”

She wiped her knife carefully on the sodden tarp beside her. “You threw me off that wall. Threw me down to die.”

“Of course. You did the impossible, you killed Fenrir,” he said with a cocksure grin. “I couldn’t have you replacing me, could I? Besides, real heroes always die. I was just ensuring that you got the very best songs written for you.”

“You’re a murderer.”

“I’m a soldier. I follow orders.” He looked her squarely in the eyes and for a moment she thought she saw something more than just arrogance and vicious pride in them, but only for a moment. “We saw the bloodflies on Ivar. We saw him fall. And we saw him climb back up and turn into that demon thing, watched him tear three men to pieces not ten paces from us. I had the blood and entrails of a man sprayed all across me.” He gestured down the length of his body. “The stench of blood and shit in my nostrils, the innards of a man that no person should ever see. Not just dead, not just cut, but shattered and shredded. No one should ever know what a man looks like burst inside-out. It’s something you can never unsee, never forget.”

“But Ivar ran away.”

“And Skadi told me to kill everyone. No survivors, no witnesses,” he said. “I didn’t argue. I didn’t question. I didn’t think. I just killed them, quickly and cleanly. They were better deaths than what any reaver would have given them.”

“You murdered those men.”

“I served my queen!” he roared. “I was her bodyguard, her servant, her sword. I didn’t take my place in the royal castle by defying commands. When I was born, I was nothing and no one, and I knew from the first day I was old enough to think for myself that I would end up a rotting old fisherman or a corpse unless I became something more, something better.” He pounded his fist on his chest again and again. “And I did! I was the great swordsman in the city, the greatest duelist, the greatest warrior. I won those fights with my strength and my steel. That was mine! And I won my place in the castle at the queen’s side. It was mine! I earned it!”

“And once you had something so precious, you suddenly had something to lose, for the first time in your whole life. And that scared you more than death, didn’t it?” she asked. “You couldn’t stand the thought of losing what you’d won.”

He didn’t answer.

“So you served loyally when it suited you, and you killed mercilessly when it suited you. And Skadi knew the truth of it. She saw right through you,” Freya said. “She knew you would do anything to keep your place in her house. She knew you were not a man of honor. You were a man to be bought and sold. And she bought you. She used you to clean up her mess on Mount Esja. She sent you to make sure Ivar’s son died in the wilderness. She had you cover her tracks and mistakes. And when there was no one left to kill, not a soul left she could trust, she even took you into her bed. She bought you, soul and flesh together.”

“Only when I wanted it,” he said hoarsely.

Freya smiled sadly. “Keep telling yourself that.”

The salty sea wind whipped the young man’s hair up into a writhing tangle of black snakes around his pale face. “When Skadi dies, Thora will become both vala and queen, and I will be her king. And then I’ll have everything.”

“You really think it will be so easy?”

“Easy? Haven’t you been listening? I’ve been fighting and killing and whoring all my life to get this far. I lost my arm!” He glared at her with serpentine eyes. “I’ve suffered more than any man twice my age, and my reward will be twice as great for it.”

“Are you going to try to kill me again?” She held up her knife. “I’m no murderer, but I’ll kill a man in self-defense.”

“Maybe another time.” He nodded past her.

Freya turned to see Halfdan and a handful of carls trudging up the lane toward them.

“I guess you really are Leif the Lucky,” she said. “If you were any other man, it would be a small matter to kill you, even with witnesses. But you’re too well-loved now, aren’t you? You’re too popular to just die like a common criminal. Politics.”

“Which just leaves the question,” he said, “of whether you will tell them what really happened to the king.”

Freya sniffed. “If I tell Halfdan and he believes me, it’ll mean chaos in the city. Some will take his side, and some will stay loyal to the queen. There might even be someone else out there with dreams of sitting in Skadi’s throne. Dozens, maybe hundreds, would die before the matter was settled. But nothing would really change. Ivar will still be dead, and the reavers will still be out there.”

“That’s very true.”

“So I won’t tell him yet. Just remember that Omar also knows the truth, and he’s not as easy to kill as I am.”

Leif snorted.

She looked at him one last time. “But when the time is right, the truth will come out. And as a friend of mine once said, that will be an interesting day.”

Leif smiled coldly, and they waited in silence for Halfdan to arrive.

Chapter 25. Runaway

Wren walked slowly through the predawn gloom. A miserable gray fog clung to the city, drifting down the streets with the aether and she hurried through it.

Woden, I’m still angry at you, but I’d be willing to reconsider my feelings a bit if you just get me out of this city without seeing another ghost.

She pulled her blanket tight around her shoulders even though she could feel the sweat trickling down her arms and running down the small of her back. She wanted to hurl the blanket and her coat away and run through the cold air, feeling the chill on her bare skin. But she knew her skin wasn’t bare anymore. The fur chafed her arms and legs.

Her teeth chattered.

Allfather, shield me from sight. Let me walk out into the world alone and unharmed, and I’ll forgive you, I promise.

She went west, hurrying down the narrow lanes between the dark and silent houses as the sky began to lighten in the east, as the first faint hints of the sun began to swallow the stars. The western seawall of Rekavik stood in poorer repair than the eastern wall, and with fewer guards upon it. It was a small matter to slip out one of the unmanned doors in the wall and then to quietly walk down the pebbled beach with the salt-pocked stones on her left and the open sea lapping on her right.

A lone guard called out to her, his voice thin and half-hearted somewhere behind her, but she gritted her teeth and kept her back to him, and she reached the end of the wall and the open fields without being stopped. An hour after leaving the castle she stood on the dead, frozen grasses of Ysland, looking south across the snowy hills.

Gudrun used to tell tales of Alba where there were trees as far as the eye could see, and bushes dripping with berries, and flowers of red and yellow. She said her own father had gone on one of the last raids and seen it for himself. Back when there were ships to sail. Back when heroes walked the earth and the gods were kind and the demons stayed in their hells.

I wish she’d never told me about all that.

Wren set out on the road heading east. Every foot step crunched on the frosted earth, and in the early morning stillness each step sounded like an avalanche, but no one called out to her from the south wall of Rekavik, and soon the entire city had disappeared behind her over a small rise in the road, and she was alone.

She walked slowly. There was no hurry in her bones or blood. There was only the burning and the hunger, and beneath them, the fear. She felt her heart pattering and pounding in her chest as her eyes darted about the road and across the hills.

They’re out there, somewhere. Sleeping in their dens. Dreaming beast-dreams. Or hunting rabbits. Or killing people. I wonder if they can remember being people themselves. I wonder if I’ll remember. Maybe that’s what drives them mad. They remember what they were and can never be again.

The dirt road crunched on and on underfoot. A cool breeze blew through the frozen grass and the air keened softly and sadly, but she did not feel the chill in the air at all. She knew it was cold, and she knew she should be cold, but she wasn’t. Wren paused and took the blanket off her shoulders, and then took off her black coat, leaving her in just a thin black shirt and skirt and boots. She pushed her sleeves up to her elbows and looked at the thick, dark red hair on her arms.

Fur. Not hair. It’s fur. My fur.

The longer she stared at it, the less horrific it became, fading to the merely strange, and then settling into something that was almost familiar.

Fur is just hair. Everything has hair. Rabbits, mice, beavers. And they’re not monsters.

She set out again, quicker this time, moving lightly with long easy strides. There were faint scents on the breeze, the pheromone traces of grouse in their nests and rabbits in their burrows, all sleeping safely tucked away in their holes in the earth, their little bodies wrapped around each other for warmth in the long night of winter. And for a moment, Wren looked to her right and considered following the smell of rabbits back to wherever it was coming from, and digging the delicious morsels out of their holes.

She blinked and gulped the cool air through her mouth.

An eagle screamed and she slowed down to scan the skies, and after a long moment she spied a tiny black dot on the northern horizon in the no-color space between the fading darkness of the night and the growing light of the morning. As she stared at the bird, wondering how far away it must have been, another sound whispered in her ear and she jerked her head away from it.

“Damn flies. You know, Allfather, not that I’m speaking to you, but after everything you’ve done to me and everyone else in this poor land, the very least consideration you might have made would be to spare us the whining of bloodflies in our ears.”

She hissed as the fly bit her ear, and she slapped the bite mark. Her fingers froze, and she swallowed, and closed her eyes. Under her fingertips, she felt the long pointed shape of her ear poking up through the thick tangle of her hair. This wasn’t like the fur, there was nothing normal to compare it to, to wave it away. This was her flesh, grown and twisted out of form. Her hand shook and she took it away from her head.

In a flurry of gestures and gasps, she ran her hands over her face and chest and legs, and then held her hands closer before her eyes, searching for more changes. And she found them. Her nose felt rough instead of smooth, and her fingers looked shorter and thicker, and her skirts no longer reached all the way to the bottoms of her boots, having rising above the level of her foot.

There was also a soreness in her back.

It’s not from walking, though, and it’s not from sleeping in that soft bed in the castle.

Wren tried to reach back to touch her shoulder blades and spine, but felt nothing strange.

I’m cracking apart, splitting and tearing. And when the pain is more than I can bear, I’ll scream until I can’t scream anymore, until I’m not human anymore, and I’ll go running mad across the hills, naked and crazed, to kill some frightened child in her bed, to kill some brave young man, to go on killing until someone kills me. It’s happening. It’s happening right now.

But there was something else, something both like and unlike pain, a warm dull throbbing between her legs. It had been easy to ignore as long as she had been moving, but now, in the stillness, she felt the heat in her sex slowly rising. Hesitantly, and then gingerly, she pressed her hand against the firm curve of flesh between her thighs, and a rolling wave of fire and hunger and joy crashed upward through her spine and down through her legs. She moved her fingers slowly and stood on unsteady legs, her chest heaving.

Wren sank to her knees, licking her lips, closing her eyes and thinking of Arn, lovely young Arn standing in the darkness, his naked arms wrapping around her, his warm flesh rising sharply inside her. Her hips shuddered again, and again, trembling in ecstasy.

The pain in her back sharpened suddenly, and she cried out as she stumbled to her feet, and ran.

Her legs devoured a league or three, or maybe only a half. As she ran, there was no road and no hills and no legs, there was only the blast of wind in her eyes and the burning in her blood. The sun’s fire and gold shone on the horizon, just barely, just enough to banish the black of night and leave the sky a dusky violet in the west and a pale slate blue in the east. And as she came through a dip in the road she recognized the narrow path off to the side, and she darted away from the road into the tall dead grass. She heard the trickle of the water long before she saw it, and she heard the leathery creaking of the little paddles in the stream long before she saw them.

The mill. And Erik. Erik will know what to do. He knows about animals, and traps, and habits, and instincts. He’ll know about foxes. He’ll know some trick. He’s had hours to deal with this. He’ll know some trick to hold it in, to hold it back. Erik will help me.

She bounded down to the grassy bank and leapt clear over the water and stumbled into the stone wall of the water mill. The stones were cold against the naked palms of her hands and she paused to look at her hands again.

The fur. Is it thinner? Lighter?

She moved toward the curtained doorway of the mill. Over the sloshing and trickling and babbling of the stream, she could clearly hear the slow and heavy breathing of the man inside. For a moment she thought of the miller and his brother, deformed and tortured. But she had only glimpsed the brother after Freya had killed them both, and there were marks on the ground that she read as a body being dragged out of the mill.

Erik cleaned it out, of course. Those two are long gone, probably floated down the stream when he first got here.

She took a deep breath.

He’ll understand. He’s infected too. He’ll look a little different, like me, but it’s all right. We’ll be safe here, for now.

She exhaled and drew back the curtain.

Blood painted the walls and floor of the mill, and fat black flies buzzed out at her in a cloud of angry wings. She yelled and jerked back, swatting the flies away, but they hovered over the water and they hovered around her, walking on her.

Not bloodflies. Just regular flies. Corpseflies.

She could feel their tiny legs on her face, landing and walking and flying away again. She pressed her lips tightly and squinted with both arms raised around her head, and she stepped inside the mill again.

The blood lay in thick, congealing splashes on the walls and floor, with small black lumps glistening in the pale morning light. Her gaze swept across the room to the far end, to the shadowy shape lying on the floor. The figure moved, and a chain rattled against the wall.

He chained himself. That’s good. He’s being careful.

“Erik?” she whispered. “Are you asleep?”

The figure snorted and groaned.


The head rose from the floor and two golden eyes stared at her as a long black tongue curled inside a yawning muzzle.

Wren stepped back. “Erik?”

The reaver dashed at her, snarling and snapping its fangs. But the chains drew taut and the creature crashed to the floor, twisting and kicking as it struggled to get free of the chains. Wren stumbled back into the blood-soaked wall and felt something soft under her boot. She looked down at the shredded remains of a sheep’s leg. The reaver scrambled up to its feet again and stood at its full height, head bent against the ceiling, arms straining against the chains locked to its wrists.

Choking on the stench of blood and viscera, Wren turned toward the door and again her foot found a strange shape in the blood. She didn’t want to look, but she heard a metallic scrape so she glanced down and saw a long steel spear lying against the wall. She looked at the spear, and then she looked at the reaver, and then she ran outside and vomited in the stream.

When her belly was empty, she sat by the water, washing her face and rinsing out her mouth. After a few moments she leaned over the rippling waters and saw the dark smudge on the end of her nose and the tips of her ears poking through her hair. And then she looked at her cold, dripping hand.

It was bare skin.

The fur is gone!

She yanked off her shirt and stared at her bare, fur-less, hair-less arms and she felt their smoothness until the chill air made them dimple with gooseflesh. Then she stood and found that her skirts hung to their proper length against her boots. And as she pulled her shirt back on and reached for her blanket, she realized she could no longer feel the pounding of her heart in her chest, though she could hear it faintly.

She wrapped the blanket around herself and sat with her back against the wall of the mill and watched the little bone and leather paddles turning in the sparkling water. The sun was up now and the sky was pale blue and soft white clouds stretched across the heavens.

She shivered.

“Thank you, Allfather. Oh, thank you, thank you. I take it all back! You’re a perfectly lovely god of seidr-magic and death!”

And as the sun warmed her face and the stones at her back, she felt her fears melt away, draining out or her weary bones, and she slept.

Wren awoke slowly. She was lying on her side in an awkward heap, tangled in her blanket. The sun was high and the air was mild, and aside from an empty belly and a pleasant warmth between her legs that reminded her of the dream she had just left behind, she felt wonderfully solid and whole and safe. She touched her ears and found them just as tall as before, and she gently stroked the soft hair on them, feeling the way it swept up either side of her head to two downy tufts. It was a strangeness, to be sure, but it did not frighten her.

They’ll go away, or they won’t. But I’m still me.

She leaned over the stream, trying to see her reflection clearly in the rippling waters, and she saw that her eyes were far more gold than green.

That’s hardly even a change, is it?

A low shuffling sound rose in the mill behind her, and she turned to look at the blank stone wall. Then she went to the door and held the leather curtain open, letting the light fall on the furry form hunched in the far corner.

It must be him. He hasn’t growled or barked or anything. He can’t make a sound, even like this.

“I’m sorry, Erik. But Freya is all right. She made it back. And she said she found another man called Omar. Did you meet him? I think he might be able to help. They were supposed to find a cure, you know. And just look at me. I’m getting better all on my own. Look.” She held out her bare arm. And gradually, as she stood there looking down at Erik, she remembered the bloodfly that bit her as she crept out of the city in the morning gloom.

A bloodfly. In winter?

Her jaw dropped and a fresh tear came to her eye.

Is that possible? Well, for a god, most certainly. It really was Woden. He sent me the cure in a bloodfly!

She smiled at the reaver. “There is a cure.” She touched one of her tall, hairy ears. “Well, sort of. But it’s going to be all right. I’ll stay with you until Freya comes. Then we’ll find the cure for you too, and then it’ll all be like it was before.” She knelt down and picked up the spear on the floor and dragged it out into the light, and then she washed it as best she could in the cold stream and scrubbed the blood away with a fistful of dead grass.

And then Wren sat back down at the door of the mill with the spear standing between her legs, leaning against her shoulder. “Well, Woden, it seems you managed to redeem yourself again, this time. And thank you again for that. But I just want to know why I can’t have a simple, normal friend? I mean, really, Gudrun and that woman in the cellar and poor Erik here. Am I really such bad company? I know I shouldn’t complain. I’m alive and well, and free, with the hearing of a fox, no less. But it’s hard not to feel sorry for myself when all I want is a sane person to talk to, like Freya, for example. I know you understand, Allfather. After all, you made me this way. So really, it’s your own fault you have to listen to me now. So I don’t want to hear any complaints from you about it.”

Wren rested her chin on her knee and closed her eyes. From the distant north came a cold and lonely howl, and she tightened her grip on the spear.

Chapter 26. Riuza

Freya stood in the cold morning light staring at the rusted door of the cell half-buried in the earth under the castle’s south wall. She could hear Katja shuffling about inside, the noises echoing in the confined space. And she heard a pair of boots crunching toward her across the trampled, icy snow.

“Good morning, fair lady.”

“Morning. Is there any sign of Wren yet?”

“I’m afraid not. Is your sister down in there?” Omar asked.

Freya nodded. “I slipped her some meat this morning. I hope it was enough.” She hesitated. “That was you shouting over the water last night, wasn’t it?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know who that was. I heard it just as I was coming inside the south wall.”

“Any idea who it was?”

“I do not. Perhaps some poor fisherman was out on the water, fighting with a reaver in the middle of the bay,” he said. “Did you sleep last night?”

“Like a corpse,” she said. “Thank you for keeping watch by my room all night.”

“It was the least I could do,” he said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small device of shiny brass and blue-tinted glass, which he unfolded and then placed on his face, with the two brass hooks wrapped around his ears and the two blue lenses resting in front of his eyes to shade them. He smiled at her. “I got them in Tingis, a lovely little seaside town in Marrakesh. Do you like them?”

She smiled. “You look ridiculous.”

He smiled back. “You know, I brought that nest here to use on your sister, to test my vaccine on a fully-turned reaver and to prove to everyone that it would work as a cure, to some extent. I wanted to meet the sister of the fearless Freya.”

“I’m sorry that you won’t get to. She’d like you.”

“Ah, she likes handsome men?”

“She likes funny men,” Freya said. “But the only ones bitten with the vaccine were me and Leif. Small good that will do. I’m sorry I lost all of your hard work.”

“Lost?” Omar grinned. “Those bloodflies are out in the city somewhere right now, nipping away at people one by one.”

“Maybe. But how much good can half a dozen flies do before they’re all swatted to death?”

“Half a dozen?” Omar glanced toward the courtyard where the guards were standing beside a burning brazier, and then he leaned in closer to the huntress. “That nest I brought to the castle was just a sample, as I said, to test on your sister. Skadi was right to search the city as she did, she knows me too well. I scattered the other nests everywhere, and I doubt the guards will find them before they hatch today.”

“You made more nests? With more bloodflies?” Freya grabbed his arm. “How many?”

Omar glanced up at the sky and the sunlight glanced off his blue glasses. “I believe I made thirty-one nests, and they will probably all have between one and two hundred vaccine-laden flies when they hatch. Most of them are inside the city walls, but I left a few outside in the hills as well, just in case any reavers wander too close to the city.”

“But that’s… that’s thousands of flies!” Freya smiled and threw her arms around him. “In just a few hours, everyone in the city will be safe from the reavers’ venom, and in a few days or weeks, all the reavers will be cured, too!”

Omar held up his hands. “Let’s not be hasty. As I said, I had no chance to test the flies on people or on reavers. I have no idea what exactly will happen, or when.”

“But what about me and Leif? We were battered and exhausted when the flies bit us, and within a few moments we were both as healthy as mountain goats. After watching his leg heal, I wouldn’t be surprised if Leif’s arm grew back!”

Omar snorted. “Let’s hope not. He’s dangerous enough with just the one. Although, growing a new arm would be extremely painful for him, and I would enjoy that a great deal.”

“Right, you mentioned that you grew an arm back once.” Freya paused, unsure of what else to say. She didn’t have much experience with lost limbs, except for the time when she watched Katja remove a man’s shattered finger that had become infected, and that hadn’t seemed very dramatic to anyone at the time. “You said you lost it when the skyship crashed-Nine hells, I forgot!” Freya’s eyes went wide. “The woman in the cellar, the pilot from your skyship, she’s in the cellar!”

“Wait, who’s in the-Riuza!” Omar grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the front of the castle. “Take me to her, now!”

They dashed through the dining hall and down the corridor, and stumbled down into the dark cellar. Freya was about to lead the way across the room, groping through the blackness, when a blinding white light filled the chamber, illuminating the sacks of potatoes, the salted seal meat, the blueberry preserves, and endless other bags and jars and piles of stored food. Omar held his bright blade over his head as he scanned the room, and then he charged past Freya to the far wall where he planted his sword in the dirt floor and wrapped his arms gingerly around the emaciated woman folded up in the corner.

Freya came to stand just behind him. “I’m sorry. I just found out about her yesterday. Wren found her. Skadi put her here for stealing parts from the drill and trying to build a ship out of metal.”

Omar ignored her as he gently rocked the frail woman in his arms and whispered quietly into her hair.

Freya looked away, feeling awkward and useless and guilty for not telling him sooner, as soon as they were alone, but it had been the furthest thing from her mind. And even now as she watched him comfort the broken remains of his friend, her only thoughts were for Wren, Katja, and Erik.

Omar looked up at her abruptly with a confused and miserable look in his eyes.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Freya said. “I should have remembered sooner.”

“No, no, fair lady,” he said softly. “You didn’t do anything wrong here. Not you. It’s just that it doesn’t make any sense. Riuza did steal the parts to build her boat, but when she was caught the king simply removed her from the project and made me the foreman in her place. She wasn’t imprisoned, she wasn’t even punished. She and I went on living in our own house not far from the castle. Skadi must have put her here after the disaster at the drill site.”

“I’m sorry, but is she your wife?”

A strange smile flickered across his face. “Not my wife, no, not nearly. But when you find yourself stranded at the end of the world where your language and your clothes and even your skin mark you as an outsider, then your closest friend may well be the one person who understands where you came from, even if you’re not particularly good friends. Riuza and I were, well yes, we were friends, eventually. Political allies, when necessary. And lovers, when drunk.” He smiled a bit more. “Just a few times.”

Freya nodded, knowing that she only partly understood what sort of lives these people had led before she found them. “Is there anything we can do for her?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. She’s very weak.” In an instant all of the memories and sorrows in Omar’s eyes were gone, replaced by his usual clear-eyed certainty. He took up his sword and sliced through the chain on Riuza’s ankle as though the iron was as soft as moldy cheese, and then he sheathed the blade and picked up the woman in utter darkness.

They made their way back to the stairs and then back to Freya’s room where they gently laid Riuza on the bedding and tried to make her comfortable. The southern woman lay on her side, staring at the wall with glassy eyes, her cracked lips whispering silent words in a language Freya didn’t understand.

“She kept saying the word Morayo. Wren thought it was someone’s name. Does that mean anything to you?” Freya asked.

Omar seemed lost in thought for a moment, and then he snapped his fingers and nodded sadly. “Morayo! Yes, I remember her now. Morayo was the engineer on Riuza’s airship. She was a very charming young lady. Very clever. I liked her very much, but there was more to her than met the eye. She caused the crash, you know. Died in it too, poor girl. If it hadn’t been for her, we never would have been stranded here, and Riuza, well, she would be at home right now, wouldn’t she?”

“Oh. I’m so sorry, for both of you. I had no idea. Maybe I should go find Wren. She knows about herbs and things. She might be able to help her.” Freya barely reached the doorway before Halfdan appeared before her.

The captain of the guard said, “There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you. I have news about your friend.”

“Wren? You found her? Where is she?” Freya asked.

“One of my men on the western seawall says he saw her walk off a few hours before sunrise. He says he didn’t stop her because he figured only a fool would go out there alone without a good reason, so she must have had a good reason, so he let her go.” Halfdan shook his head. “She left on foot, heading south.”

Freya blinked. “She left? By herself?”

Slowly, Freya turned back to look at Omar and Riuza.

She must have left during the feast. The changes must have scared her. She must have wanted to get away before they got any worse. Or… or maybe she really wanted to go alone. Maybe she didn’t trust me to help her.

Hell, the last thing I told her was that I was prepared to kill my own sister because of the plague. Wren must have thought that I would also… Oh, Wren!

“I have to go. I have to find her.” Freya pulled her heavy leather coat over her shoulders. The coat rustled and flapped over her shirt and arms louder than she had ever heard it before, as though the material was as large as a sail flapping in the sea wind right inside her ear. She looked at Halfdan. “I need you to help Omar, and his friend here. Whatever you’ve been told about him, whatever you think you’ve seen, you need to forget. Just trust me when I say that they are our friends, and we need to protect them for the safety of Rekavik.”

The warrior frowned at the southerners on the bed, but he sighed and nodded. “If they keep quiet, they’ll be safe enough for a while. No one seems to care much about our dead friend’s sudden return. Skadi has everyone thinking he was just hiding all this time, running from hole to hole to save his skin all these years, going mad with fear. It’s enough to make them pity him, but not enough for any to think him much of a hero. I suppose that’s all right.”

“It’s not all right,” Freya said. “He is a hero, and everyone will know soon enough. He has a cure for the plague, and it’s out there right now, moving through the city, and soon it will move out into the hills and the reavers will all just be folk again. But for right now, they need to keep their heads down. And I need to find Wren.”

Halfdan nodded. “Good luck to you. The little vala’s got quite a few hours’ lead on you. Any idea where she went?”

“Oh, that’s the easy part. What sort of huntress would I be if I couldn’t find a girl on a road in broad daylight? Just tell me where I can find Arfast.”

“He’s in the stable by the south gate,” Halfdan said. “No worries. I told the stabler that no one was to eat your elk.”

“Oh, good.” Freya reached up to scratch at her short hair, which felt uncomfortably twisted on top of her head.

“Freya?” Omar beckoned to her.

She knelt beside him. “What is it? Is Riuza all right?”

“Don’t you worry about us. We’ll be fine.” He reached across her shoulders and gently pulled her heavy leather hood up over her head. “You just stay warm out there. And when you see that handsome elk of yours in the stable, be sure to give him a second helping of barley for me, all right?” He winked.

She raised an eyebrow. “All right.”

Freya stood and gave Halfdan a curious look as she left, but the big man merely shrugged and stepped aside. She took up her steel spear from the cloak room, and set out. It was a long walk south through the winding roads of Rekavik, and several times she found herself in a lane that dead-ended in a ring of houses built into the same hillock.

It was in one of these dead-ends that she became annoyed with the edges of her hood blocking her vision, and she was about to shove it back off her head onto her shoulders when she remembered the strange little wink Omar had given her as he pulled the hood up. So as she walked, she gently pushed her hand back up under her hood, running her fingers through her hair over her head, wondering what he had meant about staying warm. When her fingers hit her ear, she didn’t know what to make of it. Her hand was in the wrong place, or her ear was. The sensation was dizzying, like being spun about on a high hill with her eyes closed.

My ear. It’s too high. It’s too… big? Pointed? Hairy?

She swallowed hard.

No, it can’t be. I was bitten by Omar’s bloodflies, they had the cure, not the plague. Unless.

She looked sharply in the direction of the castle.

He lied. Leif was right about him wanting revenge. Leif was right!

She gripped her spear and ground her teeth and for a half a moment she considered running back to plunge her spear through the southerner’s belly. But then she frowned.

If that were true, why would he want to hide my ears from Halfdan and everyone else? He was trying to protect me. If he wanted me dead, he could have killed me a hundred times over when we were alone on the moors, on the hunt.

Maybe the cure doesn’t work.

Or maybe…

Freya tugged at her sleeves and found her arms as smooth and pale as ever, marked only with Katja’s inked runes and animal icons. There was no fur there.

I’m not sweating like Katja and Erik and Wren were when they were infected. And Omar said I should keep warm. He was trying to tell me something. He was telling me that I’m not infected. Whatever is happening to me, it’s not the plague.

She hesitated a moment longer, then resumed striding down the road.

Either way, Erik and Wren need me.

With the looming south wall as her guide she eventually found the iron door they called the south gate and the stable nearby. Arfast stood in the first stall, passively watching the people of the city marching down to the water, or to the market, or to their friends’ homes. Freya threw her riding blanket over the elk’s back and was about to jump up on him when she noticed the two sacks of barley leaning up against each other in the next stall. A tiny buzz of wings whined in her ears.

What did Omar say? Give the elk a second helping of barley? Why did he say a second one?

She slipped into the other stall, glanced up to make sure the stabler wasn’t looking, and quickly searched the sacks. And there, tucked under the second bag of barley, was a familiar looking ball of mud. It had split open on one side and she saw that it was mostly empty, but there were two or three tiny bloodflies shaking their wings and skittering about inside the ball. She gently pressed the mud back together, sealing the insects inside, and she slipped the ball into her sleeve. Then she leapt onto Arfast’s back and rode him out through the narrow passage under the wall, and into the wide world again.

It didn’t take her long to find Wren’s boot prints on the road. They were fresh and sharp indentations in the frozen mud dusted with dry snow. So she turned east and followed them, knowing full well where they were leading her.


Arfast dashed through the fields of dead grass, his huge antlers pounding up and down with the powerful strokes of his legs. Eventually she crested the last rise overlooking the icy stream and saw the water mill buried in the high bank beside the silvery water.

There was no sign of anyone outside.

“Erik? Wren?” She rode down the bank and across the water, and slid down off the shaggy elk’s back. She rested her spear against the wall of the mill and placed her hand on her sheathed knife. The carved bone felt cool against her palm. “Hello? Is anyone here?”

And from inside the mill, she heard the sharp scratching of claws on stone. Drawing her knife, she pulled back the curtain and stepped inside. The sudden transition from daylight to deep shadow made her pause, waiting for her vision to return. And to her surprise, her eyes quickly sharpened and easily picked out the shape of the figure on the far side of the room.

It was a reaver, long and crooked and furry, and when it moved it rattled the chains behind it. The creature sat up and stared at her, and she was glad it was too dark to see its face clearly. But it shifted its legs, turning its body toward the meager light, and she saw the tiny pink teats on its belly, and the rounded shape of its hairy sex between its hairy thighs.

Without taking her eyes from the reaver, she reached into her sleeve and brought out the mud ball, and gently broke it open, and sent the pieces rolling into the room. The unseen bloodflies whined into the air, and she slipped back out through the doorway, and drew the curtain shut behind her.

Freya stood outside, listening to the soft tinkling of the cold stream and watching the occasional bit of grass or pane of ice float past the spinning leather paddles of the mill.

I suppose that has to be Erik. He said he would use the chains. He…

She swallowed and looked up at the pale blue sky and the pale gray clouds streaming across it.

Wren. I should find Wren.

From inside the mill there came a sudden shuffling and snorting, and the thumping of a foot or hand on the stone floor, and the rattling of chains.

It’s going to hurt. And it’s not a cure, Omar said. It’s a vaccine. Who knows what it will do to a fully turned reaver?

She heard more scratching and thumping and rattling behind her, louder and faster than before. Tears burned in the rims of her eyes.

Wren needs me now. I should go.

Still she lingered, listening to the rushing water, and the buzzing flies, and her Erik.

And she sat down to wait.

Chapter 27. Fallout

Omar sat at the edge of the bed, gently petting Riuza’s hair. She had fallen asleep almost as soon as he had coaxed her into lying down properly, and now he guessed by the steady sound of her breathing that she was truly at ease, for the moment. He thought back to their time together, the three years between the ill-fated flight of their airship and the ill-fated construction of Ivar’s Drill.

Riuza hadn’t been the easiest woman to get along with, even though they were stranded together on a strange island at the top of the world surrounded by huge Europan barbarians. She’d been so impatient, unwilling to learn the language, unwilling to make friends, unwilling to consider the possibility of being in Ysland one minute longer than necessary. For her, there had only been the mission of finding a way out, a way home to Marrakesh.

Omar leaned down and kissed her forehead.

And nothing I said was ever good enough for you, was it? I was never clear enough, never stern enough with Ivar, never persuasive enough with the smiths or the miners. I just didn’t want to leave as badly as you did. Maybe I should have been. If we’d sailed away instead of digging up the mountain, none of this would have ever happened.

He sighed.

She looked very different. It wasn’t just the sunken cheeks and veined hands and thin arms. She had always kept her head shaved. The hair made her look like another person altogether. And she’d been so strong, too.

Halfdan brought them food, and Omar tried to wake Riuza and feed her, but the woman was too weary and too dazed to eat. He grasped his seireiken and summoned his dead friend the Indian physician, who could only sigh and shake his ghostly head and tell Omar what he already knew. There was little chance of Riuza surviving very long, much less recovering at all. Even now, eating too much could burst her stomach.

So he sat beside her, holding her hand, trying to remember their better nights together when they had stumbled, laughing and drunk, into their little stone house. And she had stripped off his clothes with the speed and skill of an engineer dismantling a machine, and she had ridden him as though he might carry her all the way back to Marrakesh, if only she squeezed him hard enough and clawed him deep enough, and grunted loud enough. But when morning came they were always still in their little stone house in the cold wasteland of Rekavik.

It was very late in the morning when Omar noticed the noise coming from outside. For a time he just sat still, listening, trying to sort it out. It was voices mostly, male and female, and laden with all sorts of emotion. Anger. Fear. Surprise. Confusion. There was even some laughter. He’d lived in many cities in many lands, and he had come to know them all by their voices. The gentle chanting of Jaipur, the wailing songs of Damascus, the rumbling chaos of Alexandria, and the mechanical cacophony of Tingis. Rekavik had always been a quiet place, true to its fishermen’s roots, a place punctuated by sudden laughter and sudden anger, both usually the result of some fishing mishap. But the city was not quiet now.

They sounded like separate arguments. A few shouts here or there. Some angry, some scared. The crack of a stone as it hit a house. The metallic clang of a hammer on stone. It should have been more scattered and less urgent. But it wasn’t.

Damn my curiosity. It’s going to get me into trouble some day.

Omar went to the narrow window and saw nothing but the inside of the castle wall, so after tucking the blankets carefully around Riuza, he slipped down the hall with his hand resting on the grip of his seireiken. He received a few strange looks from the men in the dining hall, and a sympathetic smile from one of the cooks, but he hurried by them, eager to see what was amiss outside and to return to Riuza’s bedside.

He wasn’t far from the castle gate when he found the first group of shouters. A dozen angry men and women were pressing in against a young woman with a small girl in her arms and a small boy clutching her skirts. A rock was thrown.

Omar drew his seireiken and called upon the dead samurai in the blade, but the ghost of Ito Daisuke was already there, already guiding his hand. Together they plunged forward and slashed the rock out of the air, sending two jagged shards of stone clattering to the ground. The pieces glowed red and steamed quietly in the icy road at his feet. Omar raised the bright sword to let its light sear the eyes of the mob as he herded the mother and the two children behind him.

“What’s going on here?” he said softly.

Another rock flew and again the dead samurai flicked Omar’s wrist, smacking the stone aside.

“I asked what you’re doing here,” Omar said. “We can stand about all day playing hit the rock, but I’m not going to let you hurt this woman and her children. So you might as well start talking.”

“Get away from them,” an older woman snapped. “They have the plague! Get them out of the city before they kill us all!”

Omar glanced back into the terrified eyes of the mother. The little girl on her chest peeked out with huge golden eyes, and Omar saw the reddish hair standing on the girl’s tall ears. The boy’s ears were even larger and redder, the hair sweeping up to two little tufts above the points of the canine folds.

Omar turned back to the mob with a smile. “We’ve lived with the plague for five long years. You all know the signs of it. What is the first sign of the plague?”

The old woman and the young fisherman at her side glared. “The sweating. The shivering.”

“Yes, exactly!” Omar angled his body to let them see the mother and her children. “And you can all see quite clearly that these poor little ones are not suffering from the sweats at all. And if they are trembling, it’s only in fear from you. Look at them again! Yes, their ears and eyes have changed, but these children are not infected with the plague. They aren’t in pain, they aren’t confused.”

“They will be soon enough!” the old woman shouted.

“I don’t think so,” Omar said calmly. “These children have not been infected with the plague. Look at them. Do you really think a bloodthirsty reaver snuck into the city, sank its huge filthy fangs into their tender flesh as they slept in their beds, and then simply walked away, leaving them to grow ill? Of course not! If a reaver had found these two, they’d have been eaten in two gulps. They’re deliciously tiny!”

A nervous titter ran through the crowd.

“No, this is not the plague,” Omar continued. “This is a miracle. You all know what happens with other plagues, like the pox. Some people never grow sick. Some people grow sick and die. But many people grow sick, and then survive bearing the scars of the plague, never to grow sick again. Don’t you see? These children bear the scars of the plague, but not the plague itself. They’re healthy. And better still, that means they can never be infected by the plague at all, even if a reaver did bite them now. Look at this boy! Look at this little girl!” He pointed to them. “Trust your eyes. This is not the feverish, sickly beginning of their transformation into beasts. This is the clear-eyed, iron-strength of two Yslander children who will live long, happy lives in Rekavik, fishing its waters and defending its walls!”

He scanned the eyes of the crowd and saw the distrust and the misgiving and the fear, but where it had been sharp and vicious a moment ago, now it was muddled with doubt and even hope. Slowly, a few of the younger women came forward to look at the children, and then the younger men, and finally everyone was gathered around the mother and her two little ones. They tugged at the tall hairy ears and peered at the bright golden eyes, but there was soon no doubt among them that the boy and the girl were not stricken with the plague.

“But, how did it happen?” asked the mother. “I mean, if they were never bitten by reavers, then how did they come through the plague at all with these… scars?”

Omar smiled as he sheathed his sword. “Every plague has sown within it the seeds of its own undoing. Somewhere in the world there is some plant or fish or flea, some humble little thing that can defeat these reavers. And that’s what your little ones have stumbled upon. Tell me, have you eaten anything strange in the last week?”


“An oddly colored fish, perhaps? Or overripe herbs?” he prodded.

“I don’t think so.”

“Maybe you killed a spider with a cooking spoon, and accidentally mixed it in with-”

“Never!” The mother frowned indignantly. But then her face softened. “But this morning… this morning there were bloodflies in the house. I thought it strange for winter, for such a dry season. And they did bite the children. Could it be that?”

Omar clapped his hands. “It must be that, you clever young thing. Everyone, did you hear? There are bloodflies in Rekavik, bloodflies in winter, no less. You would think the poisoned blood of the reavers would kill off such fragile little things, but no! The bloodflies have survived the plague, and now they are the cure, they are our salvation. So go back to your homes and wait for the flies. Suffer their tiny, painless bites. And soon we will all be saved from the plague!”

The crowd murmured.

“Are we all going to get big ears like that?” someone asked.

“Probably,” Omar said breezily. “And it may last a day or a year or the rest of your life, but which is the greater sacrifice? To have the keen ears and eyes of a proud fox, or to become a slavering, mad reaver beast that lives naked in the wilderness?”

It took a bit more prodding and reassurance and even threats, but eventually he managed to send everyone home with the notion that the bloodflies were a blessing from the Allfather and that soon they would all be saved from the long darkness of the reavers. But even then, there were more fights to find and more mobs to pacify, and so Omar spent the day wandering the streets, brandishing his bright sword, teasing the truth of the bloodflies from whoever had been bitten, and then convincing the angry and the fearful to go home and embrace their strange new fate.

By the time the sun was setting, Omar had been struck by rocks four times in the head and seven times in the back, but not a single man, woman, or child had been killed or exiled. Even the most skeptical of the house carls and squinting crones had been forced to concede what they saw with their own eyes-that the bloodflies had left their victims stronger and healthier than ever before, at the meager cost of their tall ears and golden eyes. And more than a few children had run home, eager to find a bloodfly of their own, to be the first of their friends to gain the sharp hearing and night vision of a fox.

Finally, Omar shuffled into his room in the castle and flopped down beside Riuza. She was wheezing quietly and trembling slightly. He touched her cheek. “If I thought a bloodfly could bring you back to me, I would run out and catch one for you right now. But I’m afraid not even this mad experiment of mine would help you, dear lady. It won’t be long now.”

The leather curtain in the doorway burst aside and Skadi dashed into the room, a storm of black skirts and scarves and blood-red hair. She caught Omar around the throat as he was still in the process of standing up, and she shoved him back down flat on his back. He choked, struggling to breathe. The knowledge that he couldn’t be strangled to death was a small comfort as the pain in his neck and chest grew sharper.

“What did you do?!” the queen shouted in his face.

He twisted his fingers under and between hers, and pried them off his windpipe. She straightened up, but remained kneeling on his arm with her painted nails hovering over him like bloody claws. As he blinked and massaged his throat, Omar noted that Thora and Leif were standing behind their mistress wearing grim faces.

Omar smiled weakly. “Highness, yes, you may come in. Please make yourself comfortable.”

She slapped him. “What did you do?”

“I take it you’ve heard about the miracle sweeping through the city,” he said, rubbing his cheek.

“Those damned flies of yours.” Her hand flew at his face again, but this time he caught her wrist and held it tight as he sat up, pushing her back. She tried and failed to yank her hand free.

“Oh no, not of mine,” he said sharply. “They’re yours, Highness. Those are the same bloodflies that you unearthed with your damned drill, the same bloodflies that turned a good king into an insane monster.”

“But you did something to them. What did you do?”

He was about to answer when he suddenly realized that all three of his guests were wearing hoods or scarves over their heads. And then he saw the flash of gold in Skadi’s eyes. Omar grinned.

“Rejoice, Highness. You too, miss, and you, young murderer. You are all saved from the reaver scourge. The plague will soon be nothing but an unpleasant memory, and with any luck, so will I, assuming you let me leave in peace.”

“Saved?” Skadi yanked the scarf from her head to reveal the tall fox ears nestled in her hair. “We’re monsters! We’re deformed!”

Omar laughed. “You know, the children outside were a bit more sanguine about this. They were excited about having super-human hearing and what not. They think they’re demigods, or some such. Do you people have a fox-god? If not, you should, or you will very soon, I imagine.” Omar stood up.

The queen stood as well, rising half a head taller than the southerner. “When the people realize what you’ve done to them, there will be civil war! The city will tear itself to pieces and the children will drown in the rivers of blood in the streets!”

“I’ve already told the people what I’ve done,” Omar said. Then he shrugged. “More or less. Anyway, they’re quite content about it. Maybe not everyone is thrilled about the ears, but they seem willing to embrace a few little changes since it means they are now immune to the reaver plague. As are you.”

Skadi stepped back, her face twisted in disbelief. “Immune?”

“Yes. Immune.”

“So you were telling the truth after all.” The queen stood a bit easier, relaxing her shoulders. “You really did spend all those years trying to find a cure.”

“I did, although I must confess, I only succeeded in finding this remedy a day ago. And I have you to thank. If you hadn’t sent that lovely young lady into the wild, to find me and remind me of the drill and the flies, I would probably still be in my little cave, dreaming of warmer climes.”

“And the people all know about this? And they accept it?” Skadi touched one of her hairy ears and winced at the sensation.

Omar sighed. “They know as much as they need to know. The bloodflies are the cure, and the ears are the price of their good health. All you need to do now is keep them calm and quiet a few more days and everyone in Rekavik will be saved. Wait a few more weeks for the flies to find the reavers in their dens, and everyone in Ysland will be saved. The hard part is done, Highness. By the time spring arrives, it will all be over. And if you like, you may take all the credit for it, however you wish.”

She looked at him suspiciously. “And what price will I pay for this generosity?”

“Nothing at all. A good deed is its own reward.” Omar smiled briefly.

“Just like that? No blood feud, no vendetta for what I’ve done to you?”

“No.” Omar gazed down at Riuza. She was hardly breathing at all. He said, “I’m no Yslander. Gods, I’m barely even human anymore. And Riuza was always going to die, whether in five years or fifty. If I hadn’t boarded her ship eight years ago, she probably would have returned safely to Tingis, only to be killed in some other airship accident or even in a war with the Songhai Empire. Death is a universal constant, just like me.”

Skadi smirked. “Is that really how you see the world?”

He looked up at her. He remembered the stained and patched black dress she had worn as the vala of Hengavik, and the way her young eyes had lit up when he talked about airships and the city of Tingis, and his travels around the world. “You were just like me, once. So eager, so curious. But you had the same curse as me, too. Obsession. It’s such a pity because you had such good intentions. Grand intentions! A machine to warm the land, to make the earth fertile, to bring back the forests of Ysland. It was a beautiful dream you had. And I was so caught up in helping you that I missed the little signs along the way. When you replaced the vala of Rekavik. When you seduced Ivar. It was such a subtle and insidious ambition.”

“There’s nothing wrong with ambition,” she said haughtily.

“Nothing at all,” he said gently. “But that ambition led you to a precipice. You climbed so high and grasped so much that you became terrified of losing it. And when you saw Ivar turning into a monster right before your eyes, when he tore those three men to pieces and hurled their shredded flesh in your face, that was the moment when you decided that what you had was more important than truth or life. And you told Leif to kill everyone to hide your failure, just so you could wear a little crown and sit on a little throne.”

Omar’s shoulders shook and his lip curled, and slowly the laughter built up inside him until he was roaring and crying.

“What’s so funny?” the queen asked.

He wiped his eyes, but the grin remained. “I’ve stood in the grand halls of the Aegyptian kings, the Hellan temples to the Olympian gods, the imperial bathhouses of the Persian lords, and the royal gardens of the Rajput princes. I’ve walked on polished marble, through gilded halls of towering alabaster statues, through the rainbow light of delicate stained glass windows, gazing up at the frescoed panels of soaring domed ceilings.” Omar exhaled the last of the giggles, and he gestured at the room around them. “You people live in stone caves with dirt floors, and the only remaining wood in the entire country is in your bedroom, which stinks of mold, by the way. And this,” he giggled, “is what you’ve been fighting so hard to hold on to. There are beggars in Aegyptus who live better than you do.”

She scowled at him in silence.

He sighed and glanced down at Riuza again. He couldn’t see her breathing anymore. Omar knelt down and touched her neck, and then stood back up. “She’s gone.”

“Then I’m a very lucky woman that you’re so far above matters of life and death,” Skadi said. “You can go now. Leave the city. Leave the country. No one will stop you.”

Omar didn’t move. “You know, if you had just executed Riuza or exiled her to some hovel in the hills, I probably wouldn’t care at all, now. But you threw her into the darkness and held her on the brink of starvation for five years. Five years. Until her body broke down, and her mind broke down, and she died in pain and confusion and fear, just now. Right here at our feet, when we weren’t even looking. And you did it just because you were angry at your own failure, didn’t you? But she didn’t deserve this. She just wanted to go home. And if the universe was a just and fair place, you would be punished for this.” He looked the tall queen in the eyes. “But the universe isn’t a just place, and life, as we all know, isn’t fair. But then, I suppose… I suppose that I can be fair, can’t I? I can be just.”

Omar drew his seireiken.

The blade flashed in the dim room, the walls erupting into a thousand shades of silver for the barest fraction of a moment.

The light was extinguished. The blade was already back in its clay-lined sheathe. The ghost of the samurai hovered in the corner of Omar’s vision, and then vanished as he took his hand off of the sword.

Thora gasped.

The queen fell to the floor in a heap and the top half of her head slowly separated from the bottom, tearing apart on a diagonal line from the bottom of her jaw to the top of her ear, opening up her skull and spilling her charred brains on the cold stone floor.

Omar looked past the disgust on Leif’s face to the horror in Thora’s eyes. “I hope you’ll remember this sight every day for the rest of your life, young miss. You’re the vala of Rekavik now, for whatever that’s worth. They may even make you queen as well. Whatever power you ever come to hold, always remember why you hold it. Because if you abuse that power, then one day, eventually, someone with nothing to lose will come for you, just as I came for your mistress, and he or she will stop at nothing to destroy you. The grand high vala and queen of Rekavik, the great and powerful Skadi, is just a pile of rotting shit now. So take a good long look, young miss. Take a very good look.”

And then he left.

Chapter 28. Reunion

Freya sat outside the water mill listening to Erik gasp for breath and pound on the floor inside. She glanced inside once to check on him, and saw the inhuman expression on his face. It was a face stretched beyond a man’s capacity to understand pain, a face that wanted to scream but never could, a face on the edge of madness and far, far beyond despair.

It was a face she needed to forget.

Time passed. The stream gurgled by, the mill paddles creaked, and gradually the noises inside the mill died down until even her keen fox ears, which were now much larger than before, could no longer hear anything above the gentle whispering of Erik’s breathing. She rose to her feet, set her cold steel spear aside, and went back inside the mill.

This time the figure on the floor was Erik, the real Erik, her Erik. He stretched across the cold earth, pale and naked, his muscles quivering and limbs shaking. Her eyes darted downward and saw that he had indeed been fully restored.

The only differences she could see were the hairy ears standing up through his heavy, matted blonde hair, but the sight only made her smile. There was something almost cute about them.

It’s not just a vaccine. It’s a real cure. A cure for everyone!

Freya stripped off her long leather coat and draped it over her shivering husband, and a moment later his eyes opened, and his lips moved, mouthing, Freya?

“It’s me.” She helped him sit up and then kissed him gently. “How do you feel?”

He winced and looked around. His hand snaked out of the coat and he signed, “Like a corpse that someone lit on fire and then left out in the rain.”

She nodded. “Well, it’s all over now. You’re all right now. Do you remember what happened?”

“I remember coming here,” he signed. “And putting on the chains.”

She leaned around him and unlocked the shackles on his ankles and wrists.

“But after that, it’s all hazy, like a dream.” Erik paused, staring at his hand. “I remember being hungry, and angry, and scared. But that’s all. What happened after I left you? You found a cure with that man, Omar?”

“It’s a long story. But yes, he did make a cure. He’s giving it to everyone in Rekavik right now to protect them from the plague, and then hopefully it will spread to the reavers themselves and they’ll all turn back to normal, just like you did.”

Erik nodded and massaged his eyes. When he looked up again, he was squinting at her face, and then above her face. His eyes widened. “Oh no, you’re infected too?”

Freya reached up and touched the tall fox ears on her head. They felt so soft between her fingers, and the sensation tickled her scalp. “No, I wasn’t infected. This is the cure. The vaccine. It changes us a little bit, but it makes us stronger than before. I can see you just as clearly as you can see me, here in the dark. And listen. We can hear the running current outside, and the wind in the grass, and Arfast’s footsteps, even though he’s far upstream, drinking the cold water.”

Again Erik started, and he grabbed at his own head and discovered the large furry ears.

“It’s all right. It’s happening to everyone, and it means we’re safe from the plague.” She took his hands down from his head and kissed his dry lips.

As she leaned back, he looked at her strangely and signed, “You cut your hair.”

She grinned and ran her hand up the back of her head, feeling the short locks ripple lightly over each other. “Yeah, that’s a long story. But I’ve gotten a lot of practice telling it, so it’s a pretty good story now. I’ll tell you in a moment. Can you stand up first?”

They stood and went to the door where they both had to pause for their golden eyes to adjust to the bright sunlight. She took up her spear, and as they walked upstream in search of Arfast, she told him about her journey to Thaverfell, and killing Fenrir, and returning the ring to Skadi. When they found the white elk, she pulled off the saddle blanket for Erik to tie around his waist under her coat.

He patted Arfast’s neck, and signed, “It sounds like it was quite an adventure.”

“It was. And I’m glad it’s over. Well, it will be over as soon as we find Wren. I followed her tracks here, but she seems to have moved on. Do you have any memory of her coming to see you in the mill?”

Erik shook his head. He frowned. “I do wish I had my clothes. And my spear.”

“Well, you probably tore your clothes off when you changed,” she said quietly. Then she frowned. “But your spear should be wherever you left it. I mean, I can’t imagine anyone came to visit you out here. And if they did find a chained up reaver and a spear close at hand…”

“They would have killed me,” Erik signed.

Freya said, “Maybe Wren took it.”

“But why?”

“Why else would she need a spear? To kill something.”

Together they searched the banks of the stream all the way back to the mill, and in the dead grass behind the house Freya found a fresh boot print in the snowy earth. They set out north, following the faint trail as it meandered around boggy pits and rocky crags and over hillocks until they both began to hear something on the reedy wind. They knelt together in the snow to listen as Arfast stood behind them, flicking his tail over his rump.

“Is it a voice?” Erik signed.

“It could be an animal,” Freya signed back.

“It almost sounds like a deer caught in a snare. Hear the way it’s breathing, short and shallow?”

She nodded and they set out again, quicker than before. The sounds led them up a rocky slope and when they reached the top they looked down on a wide jagged gash in the earth more than fifty paces long though only six or seven paces wide at its center. It looked as though the Allfather himself had plunged his sword into the ground, carving a wound in the stone and soil that plunged far down into the darkness below. Across a narrow part of the ravine, with its steel butt and blade just barely clinging to either side of the rock, was Erik’s steel spear, and in the center of the spear’s shaft they could see ten white-and-red fingers.

“Wren!” Freya dashed down the slope and across the broken rock floor to the edge of the ravine, and looked down.

Wren looked up, her face pale and drawn, her feet dangling above the black abyss. “I made a bet with the Allfather that you would come and save me before I fell,” she said. “Looks like I lost.”

“You bet against me?” Freya reached down to steady the spearhead at her feet as Erik leapt across the gap and took hold of the butt.

“Well, you know how clever Woden likes to be. I thought if I tricked him into taking the wrong end of the bet, I would come out ahead when I fell to my death,” she wheezed breathily. “I would go to the next world with the Allfather owing me a favor. It seemed like the wise thing to do at the time.”

Freya and Erik lifted the spear and the dangling girl with it, and then Erik leapt back across the narrow ravine and Wren collapsed onto solid ground. When she caught her breath, she said, “But now I owe him a favor. Clever bastard.”

“I can always throw you back in,” Freya offered as she sat down beside the young vala.

“Maybe another time.” Wren leaned against the huntress and sighed, rubbing her hands. “Thanks for saving me, all the same.” Then she hopped up and hugged Erik. “And thanks for not eating me, you know, when you were a reaver.” She pulled back and glanced down at the rough blanket around the man’s waist and his bare chest behind Freya’s white and gray leather coat. “I think you need some clothes.”

“This is how all recovering reavers dress,” he signed with a smile.

Freya interpreted for him, and Wren laughed and hugged him again. Then she handed him his spear. “Sorry. Looks like I scraped it up a little.”

Erik rolled his eyes and took back his weapon with a mocking glare. He marched over to Freya with an open hand and she gave him the small whetstone from the pouch on her belt, and he went to sit on a rock to try to fix his spear with a very serious pout on his lip.

Freya stood and tussled the girl’s hair and plucked gently at the little tufts of hair on top of her fox ears. “I see that Omar’s bloodflies found you in time.”

“Just barely. Someone up there must like me after all,” she said with a sidelong glance at the gray sky.

“Mm hm. He liked you enough to dangle you over a ravine. Are you going to explain that any time soon?”

The young vala straightened her jacket and made a show of brushing the dust from her black sleeves and skirts. “I really don’t think it’s any of your business.”

“Oh really?” Freya smiled. “Then I guess I don’t need to let you ride Arfast back to the city.”

“Oh please let me! My arms are killing me!” Wren pleaded. “I’ll tell you. I got to the mill and I heard reavers in the hills, so I took the spear to protect Erik, and I wound up here, and there was one reaver, and I, sort of, well, tripped.”

Freya laughed and she saw Erik’s shoulders shaking silently out of the corner of her eye. “You tripped into the ravine?”

Wren pouted haughtily as she walked over to Arfast. “Well, what do I know about fighting with a spear? I’ll stick to my sling, thank you very much.”

Erik tapped his spear to get their attention, and signed, “What happened to the reaver?” There was worry in his golden eyes.

“It tried to grab me, and missed.” Wren hopped up onto the white elk’s back. “And it fell a lot farther than I did. Now let’s please get going. I’m hungry. I didn’t bring any food because I really didn’t expect to live this long today.”

They returned to Rekavik in no particular hurry. Freya and Erik walked side by side, occasionally catching each others’ hands or slipping an arm around the other’s waist or neck. They didn’t speak, each lost in their own thoughts and their own strange new sensations, each one exploring the world again for the first time, hearing it again for the first time in all its tiny, living details. They heard the crickets in the grass and the rabbits in their burrows, and when a rock broke free and tumbled down a distant hillside, all three of them turned to look. The sun glared through the overcast sky, and they all shaded their eyes with their hands or kept their gazes on the ground.

It was late in the afternoon when they finally reached the iron door in the south wall of the city, and the guards let them enter without any questions or searches. Freya started to explain their ears, but then saw that a third of the warriors had them as well, in various states of growth. So after leaving Arfast in the stabler’s care, they continued toward the castle. The streets were quiet except for the handful of children running about. Freya saw the housewives through the open doorways making their suppers, and the fishermen cleaning their catches, and the crones knitting their scarves. And on nearly half of the heads she saw small or large furry ears, and bright golden eyes.

“You have to admit, this is very strange,” Wren said.

“The ears or the fact that everyone seems fine with them?” asked Freya.

“Both,” Erik signed.

The sun was setting as they approached the castle walls and the closed iron door. Freya banged on the door and called out, and after a moment of silence, the locks clicked and clanged and the door squealed inward. Freya stepped inside and found Halfdan and his guards standing around a crackling fire in an iron brazier. The bearded captain waved them over. “You’re all alive?” He grunted mirthlessly. “I suppose someone was bound to have a better day than us.”

“What do you mean?” Wren asked.

“What do I…?” Halfdan pulled the steel helmet from his head, letting his tall ears flop upward. “First the bloodflies started biting, but word came through that we’re not allowed to swat the damned buggers. So we sat at our posts while we were eaten alive. Then we started growing these damn fool ears. I know I should be grateful that we’re all safe from the plague, but why did it have to be our ears!?”

The big man’s face was equally pale and red, and Freya wondered just how embarrassing he really thought the ears were.

Is Erik embarrassed? He hasn’t seemed bothered at all since we left the mill.

“And then we had to spend the day breaking up fights and keeping folk calm after Omar went around telling everyone that this was the cure. I suppose he thought he was helping, and I suppose he was after a fashion, but no sooner did he leave a group in the road then a new fight would start and who had to break it up? We did.”

“That’s not so awful,” Freya said. “People are scared. A little brawl here and there is only natural.”

“Natural!” Halfdan huffed. “Don’t talk to me about what’s natural. Not today!” He slammed his helmet back onto his head, and winced sharply. “But that’s not even the worst bit. We’d only come back here for supper a little bit ago and found Skadi dead. Killed. Her head sliced open.”

Freya stared at him. “Sliced open?”

“Aye, brains and pus all over the floor. I’ve never seen anything like it. Well, not with a woman, anyway.” Halfdan shrugged. “And then the lads caught Leif and Thora trying to slip out one of the eastern doors. Looks like the boy killed the queen to make off with the girl.”

“I told you, Omar killed the queen! And I wasn’t trying to slip out!” The shout came from around the corner, and Freya took a few steps to the side to see Leif sitting shackled in the snow against the side of the castle. His one hand was bound to his ankle.

“Omar spent the whole day out talking to the people bitten by the flies. Everyone saw him,” Halfdan shouted. “And you have a lot more to gain by killing the queen than him. Everyone knows about you and Thora.”

“Then everyone is a damn idiot! That cow hasn’t let me ride her once!” With a quick roll and a little tottering, the young warrior got to his feet and hobbled forward, bent over to hold his hand near his foot, but when he approached the brazier he straightened up, standing on one leg so he could raise his arm and back properly. “I was at the wall checking our defenses. The reavers attacked us last night, if you recall, and we were barely ready for them, barely able to keep them out. And now we have swarms of bloodflies in the city and every man is hiding his damn ears like a scolded child instead of seeing to his duties.”

“So what if they do?” Freya asked. “Do you have some reason to think the reavers will attack again tonight?”

Leif licked his lips. “I don’t know.”

“Oh yes, he does.” This voice came from the main door of the castle, which opened sharply, thrusting back the snow on the ground. Out stepped Omar in his finely tailored coat and blue sunglasses, with his hand resting lightly on his sword. “He knows they’re going to attack again, just as he knew they would attack yesterday, didn’t you?” Omar slapped the youth in the back of the head, sending him sprawling into the snow.

The guards chuckled.

Halfdan hauled Leif back up to his feet and looked at the southerner. “What are you talking about?”

“While I was busy up at the drill site working on the cure for the plague, I saw a man on the footpath at the base of the mountain along the edge of the bay. A man with long dark hair. He was there to meet with someone very tall and very hairy. They spoke to each other.”

“He’s in league with the reavers?” Halfdan shook the one-armed youth. “Impossible! Those beasts can’t talk or reason.”

“Obviously one of them can,” Omar said. “I saw them meet. They stood together and talked for a moment, and then they both turned and walked away.”

“Then it couldn’t have been a reaver,” said one of the guards.

“Impossible,” muttered another.

“We’ll see soon enough,” Omar said. “Because if I’m right, then sometime tonight-”

A bell began to ring off to the east. And then a second one began to ring as well.

“You see, my friends?” Omar ran his hand back through his wavy black hair. “They’re here.”

Chapter 29. Slaughter

Freya led Erik and Wren at a dead run into the castle and down the hall of sleeping chambers where she rapidly ducked her head in and out of the curtains, looking in each one as she went.

“Here!” She dragged Erik inside a room that appeared to belong to one of the older guards, and she grabbed a shirt and trousers from the clothesline strung across the low ceiling. As he put the clothes on, she pulled her long leather coat back on and checked her bone knives. “I have to get out there and help. Wren, I want you to stay here and keep an eye on Erik to make sure he’s fully-”

Her husband bolted to his feet and signed, “I’m more than ready to fight!”

“All right then.” Freya nodded. “Wren, I still want you to stay here. This is the safest place in the city, in case the reavers come over the walls.”

“I can live with that,” the young vala said.

“Good, I-” Freya froze.

There was a young woman standing in the doorway, holding the curtain open with one hand and clutching a blanket around her otherwise naked body with the other hand. Reddish fox ears stood tall in her light brown hair. She whispered, “I heard voices. I thought…”

Freya flew across the room and wrapped her arms around her sister. “Katja! Katja, you’re back, you’re better, thank the gods!”

The two women fell to their knees, laughing and crying as Wren and Erik hovered over them smiling.

“I woke up in the dark, in this cell, and a man with brown skin opened the door and brought me inside here, and put me in bed, and I think I ate some fish soup, and I think I spit up some of the soup,” Katja rambled. “I’ve been so hungry and so tired. Where are we?”

Freya grinned. “I’d love to tell you everything, but Erik and I have to go fight some monsters right now. But this is Wren. She’s the vala of Denveller, and a very good talker, and she’ll tell you everything that’s happened in the last few days.”

“Days?” Katja stared.

Freya kissed her on top of the head right between her furry ears. “Days.” She started to stand up, but then dropped back down and squeezed her sister in another rib-cracking embrace. “I’m so happy to see you again. You have no idea. I…”

“You cut your hair,” Katja said, frowning.

Freya laughed again and kissed her sister’s head again. “Wren will tell you everything. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

She hurried into the corridor and ran back to the dining hall where she and Erik found three house carls belting on their swords and cinching up their old, dented armor. The seawalls bells were still ringing, and men were shouting outside. In the cloak room the two hunters grabbed their spears and then they ran out to find a light snow falling, the wind rising, and the stars just beginning to shine in the young night sky.

Erik took her hand. “Are you sure you’re all right to fight?”

She smiled. “Are you kidding? All four of us are alive and healthy, the plague has been cured, and Skadi is dead. I feel like I could defend the entire city by myself!”

Across the courtyard she saw Leif sitting in the dirty snow, his hand still bound to his foot. The youth glared at them. “Let me go! Let me fight, damn you! You need me! I’m the best sword in Rekavik!”

Freya and Erik said nothing and ran out into the street. Freya led the way to the eastern seawall, tracing the same path she had taken the night before. When they approached the wall, she saw the same mass of warriors and fishermen with swords and harpoons crowding near the door with several men up on the wall and several boys on the roofs of the nearby houses, their slings already hurling stones over the wall.

And then the blazing white light of Omar’s sword erupted atop the wall, and Freya grinned. “Come on, we’re not needed here. Omar can take care of anything that attacks this door. Let’s go to the next one.”

They turned south and snaked a path carefully through the gawkers and the boys and the mothers.

“If you’re not fighting, get back inside!” Freya shouted.

At the next door in the seawall there were far fewer men on the wall, and all of them were fishermen, but they had three times as many slingers behind them, and the stones were flying as thick as the snow blasting down on them in the arctic wind. The torches fluttered and gasped, threatening to go out.

Freya and Erik climbed up to the top of the wall and the fishermen made room for them.

“The hunters!” One of the older men nodded. “Good. Everyone’s at the north door tonight. They all want to be near Omar. Everyone wants to see him fight with that damn sword of his.”

“Let them. More for us,” Freya said. She peered out at the bay and her keen fox eyes quickly picked out the sharp ripples in the water driving toward the city. “They’re swimming? But that water’s freezing. They won’t put up much of a fight when they get here.”

“Let’s hope not,” Erik signed.

“But still, why would they? Why risk it? Why not follow the bank along the beach?” Freya leaned on her spear as the slingers’ stones rained down on the water with heavy plops and splashes. The torches growled, the wind shrieked, and the crowd at the north door was shouting and singing in anticipation of the battle. But gradually through all that noise, Freya heard something new. “Do you hear that? It sounds like voices.”

“Just the reavers, snarling and carrying on,” the fisherman said.

“No, it’s not.” Freya squinted at the ripples, and saw the first shaggy head rise high above the water as the swimmer came close to the shore. She saw the tall hairy ears and golden glint of two eyes, but the rest of the body that emerged from the black water was pale and smooth.

“They’re human!” She spun to the slingers. “Stop throwing, stop! They’re human! They’re cured! They’re cured and coming home. Stop slinging and open the door!”

“No! Wait!” the fisherman grabbed her arm and pointed at the bay.

The first swimmer to reach the shallows and stand up was a young woman. She moved awkwardly in the deep water, which still rose to her breasts, and she paddled with both hands to help drive her forward. She was gasped and choking and now they could hear her crying out, “Help me, please! Help!”

The woman was shivering, her head shaking from side to side, her teeth chattering visibly in the starlight.

Freya shook the fisherman off her. “Let her in! Open the door!”

A reaver burst up from the water just behind the naked woman in the water and sank its claws into her shoulders and chest. Snarling and barking, it drove the woman under water with its sheer dripping weight, and both vanished beneath the surface. The woman’s head and chest surged up out of the water, and she screamed, and was suddenly silenced as the reaver tore her arm from its socket and plunged its fangs into her bare throat.

Freya screamed, “Slingers, loose!”

The stones flew, battering the water and the beast standing waist deep in a black pool of blood and floating limbs.

The other swimmers were coming up to the beach as well, all naked and exhausted, all gasping and shivering and barely able to speak. They cried out weakly, “Help me! Save me! A rope! Please!” And one by one they were set upon by the reavers swimming along right behind them. They were crushed and shredded and torn apart within throwing distance of the wall.

Freya raised her spear and moved to the edge of the wall, but Erik pulled her back and signed, “We can’t save them. We have to hold this line.”

Freya stepped back. “Slingers, faster!”

The rocks slammed into the waters and the reavers, and the beasts yelped and whined and howled as the stones smashed their arms and chests and faces. But still they came, killing the fleeing swimmers every step of the way.

And from across the dark waters, a gravelly voice thundered, “KILL THEM! CRACK THEIR BONES! SHRED THEIR FLESH!”

Freya and Erik exchange a worried look, but there wasn’t time to wonder who was hollering over the bay.

The reavers staggered up out of the surf and shook the cold salt water from their fur, but they only paused a moment before dashing toward the seawall door where they began leaping and snapping at the warriors. The slingers aimed upward so their rocks would sail over the men and fall straight down on the beasts, and the spears and harpoons swung down to stab at them.

Freya counted eight reavers on the beach below, with one or two more still in the water.

It isn’t fair. They shouldn’t have to die like this, not with the cure so close at hand. If only they had stayed away for a few more days, then no one would need to die. But we can’t let them kill us either.

“This is the last battle, the last night of blood!” she cried out to the grim-faced fishermen. “After tonight, there won’t be any reavers left in Ysland, one way or another!”

The men shouted, “For Ivar! For Rekavik!”

Springing upward from the beach, the reavers could just barely reach the top of the wall and the boots of the defenders. Freya took her time, readying her weapon just beside her eye, and when a reaver leapt up right below her, she drove her steel spear straight down into its shoulder or eye or even into its open maw. Erik stood at her side, striking swiftly and then yanking his blade free before the weight of the dead reaver could pull the spear from his hands.

After a few exhausting minutes, four of the reavers on the beach were dead, and one of the survivors had turned its attention to the task of gnawing on the bodies on the ground.

“We’re halfway home!” Freya shouted, and the slingers behind her cheered.

Two of the reavers on the ground stopped trying to scramble up the wall and began slamming their shoulders and heads against the iron door.

“Brace the door!” the fishermen shouted.

Freya moved back from the edge of the wall to catch her breath and feel the pounding of her heart in her chest. Erik tapped her shoulder and he pointed out at the water.

The last ripple was reaching the shore, but the dark shadow rose from the surface far sooner than any of the swimmers had. It rose, and rose, until it was wading waist-deep still far from the light of the torches. The driving snow wind obscured all but the creature’s dim outline. And then it roared a deafening, thunderous roar.

Freya stepped back, and so did every man on the wall. “That’s impossible! We killed Fenrir, we brought back his head!”

But as the monster came closer, she saw there were subtle differences from the reaver-king that Omar had beheaded on Thaverfell. It was enormous and completely covered in red fur, just like Fenrir, but this reaver’s fur was a bit thinner and browner, and when its hips rose out of the water it had only one tail, not three. Its muzzle was shorter, its features almost vaguely human behind a fox-like mask of fur and fangs.

Erik signed, “Look at the neck. A collar?”

Freya saw the silver shining in the starlight through the snow. “It’s a torque. That reaver’s wearing a silver torque. What does that mean?”

“Nine hells,” the old fisherman beside her muttered. And then he shouted, “It’s Prince Magnus!”

Freya spun to face the slingers on the roofs. “Run to the other door, and get Omar. We need his sword here, now! RUN! ”

Three of the boys dashed off their perches, crashed to the snowy street, and took off at a dead sprint for the other door in the eastern seawall where the bright light of the rinegold sword was still clearly visible through the falling snow.

Freya stared at the huge creature coming toward her.

What was it Ivar said? He wanted to bite me again and again, until I was a god like him. This is what he meant. How many times did he bite his son? How much of the fox’s soul did he give to Magnus to change him into this monster?

The reavers at the foot of the wall stopped snarling and beating on the door, and they turned, whimpering and whining, toward the monstrous prince. The huge fox demon waded up out of the water and came straight toward the wall and Freya realized that the top of its head was only a few hairs shorter than the wall itself.

“Back, back, back!” she cried and the warriors all moved to the back edge of the wall, spears and harpoons raised in a bristling array of bloody steel.

The feral behemoth strode up to the seawall and swept one huge claw along the beach, smashing two of the small reavers aside and sending them flying down the strand. The other two bolted in the opposite direction, but the demon prince caught one around the legs and hurled it back into the bay. And then it turned its enormous golden eyes to Freya and the men on the top of the wall, and parted its fiendish jaws in a hideous grin.

“Slingers!” she cried, and the rocks flew thick and fast, but the beast only flinched and growled as they pelted its head and chest. She glanced north along the dim line of the wall to the crowd of defenders at the next door, but she couldn’t see the light of Omar’s sword.

The huge reaver slammed its shoulder into the seawall, and the ancient stones crackled and crunched and shuddered. The fishermen stabbed with their harpoons at the beast’s head and shoulders, and it drew back sharply, snapping its fangs as trickles of blood ran down its face, glistening in the torch light. And then the hulking monster stepped back and locked eyes with Freya, and growled, “You. Murderer. I come for you, girl. You die now.”

The men on the wall all looked at Freya.

“It speaks!?”

“It wants the girl!”


But the boys on the roof were at half their number since the others had gone in search of Omar, and those who remained were running out of stones to hurl. The rocks still flying across the wall were fewer and slower, and the beast ignored them entirely. And the men went on murmuring, “It wants revenge for Fenrir! It wants the huntress!”

But the salty old man at Freya’s side shouted, “Woden shits on what it wants. It’s not getting her or anything else. It’s getting killed, is what it’s getting, and we’re the ones killing it! We’ll bleed it dry and break its bones! And we’ll eat its black heart before midnight comes!”

A dark and bloody humor settled on the men. They all began muttering curses and threats and boasts and promises of the depraved and vicious things they were planning to do to the beast’s corpse when it laid steaming and rotting under their boots. Freya almost reminded them that the beast was their own prince, their own Magnus, just another man who fell victim to the plague. But she couldn’t imagine how many of Omar’s bloodflies would have to bite this creature to bring back his humanity, or how long the change would take.

Too long.

The demon charged at the wall again and threw one long, clawing arm at the warriors standing just above its head. Freya jumped left and Erik jumped right and the powerful limb crashed down between them, cracking the stones of the wall. They both lunged, driving their spears into thick fleshy muscles of that arm, and the beast whipped it back again with a bestial snarl.

It pulled the spear right out of Erik’s hands, but he had his steel knife out in a flash. The claws crashed down on the wall again, with the beast snapping its sword-like fangs right at the lip of the wall, right at their boots. The men leapt back again, and attacked the arm again with harpoons and stones and hammers. The arm ripped away from the wall again, but a single hooked claw caught Freya’s foot and yanked her leg out from under her.

She fell down flat on the stone wall, but kicked hard two times, and her boot came free of the claw before it could drag her off the wall entirely. She rolled onto her stomach with her spear under her, and pushed herself back up.

Chapter 30. Silence

Erik felt naked. His borrowed shirt and trousers were too thin for the wind and the snow and the night air. The armored warriors and fishermen looked like iron gods beside him, heavy and solid, and most of all, warm. Erik was freezing. Even with his blood roaring and muscles burning, he was freezing.

Somewhere down below on the dark pebbled beach was his spear.

Gone. Useless.

The knife in his hand felt tiny and just as useless as he stared into the huge stinking maw of the beast below him. It was impossibly big. Twice as tall as a tall man, at least. And probably four times as heavy.

Is this what I turned into?

Did Wren see me like this?

Did Freya?

The monster pulled its arm back, yanking Freya’s foot out from under her. Erik darted forward, but she kicked free before he could take a second step, and she started to get back up. He held his knife at the ready, though every instinct in him was screaming to rip the harpoon away from the man next to him so he could do more than wait for something to stab with his little blade.

Freya stood up, her back to the beach.

The huge reaver shot its claws forward, not swinging them down onto the wall as before, but driving them straight on as a hunter drives a spear into a boar.


He felt his lips and jaw moving, instinctively forming her name, screaming at her to run, to jump, to get down, and his free hand was waving, fingers signing as fast as he ever had signed in his life. But he made no screams and no one heard him. He beckoned madly with his hands, but she was looking at the old fisherman on her other side, and not at him.

The claws rushed forward.

Erik dashed across the wall, grabbed his wife with both hands, and spun her off toward the surprised fisherman.

The claws slammed into Erik’s back, four curving blades thrusting into his flesh, cracking his ribs, and snapping his spine. He felt his insides moving downward as his skin stretched and split. His arms snapped out to his sides all on their own, as though they hoped to reach back and take the claws out of his body, but just couldn’t reach. His legs kicked wildly, also beyond his control. The pain was everywhere, shrieking up and down his spine, and his jaw locked open as his neck strained to hold his head up.

He couldn’t think.

He couldn’t even feel.

He was the pain and the pain was him, and he stared up at the dark sky, at the thick clouds obscuring half the stars, at the tiny flakes of snow tumbling down toward him, and he didn’t understand what he saw.

As his head fell forward, he saw Freya. Her beautiful face, framed in white-golden hair and crowned with fox ears, her beautiful face turned toward him, her beautiful face red and white with rage and shock and sorrow. Her mouth was opening, her lips moving slowly.

Dimly, he knew she was screaming, but he couldn’t hear her.

He wanted to say something, but he couldn’t move his hands, and he couldn’t think of anything to say, and he couldn’t feel his…

Chapter 31. Fury

Freya spun into the arms of the fisherman and saw the reaver drive its claws into Erik’s back, saw her husband lifted off his feet, shaking and twisting with pain. She saw his face bright red as he screamed in silence. His chest expanded, wider and wider, until she saw the blood blossoming from the tears in his skin.

And then he was gone, ripped off the wall into the darkness and hurled back into the freezing waters of the bay.

“ NO! ” Freya ran across the wall and leapt into the cold, empty air with her spear raised in both hands, and she sank the steel blade and shaft deep into the reaver’s shoulder until it erupted through the beast’s back.

The reaver roared and stumbled.

Freya clung to the wet, bloody, stinking fur with one hand as she drew her serrated knife in the other hand and shoved it into the reaver’s neck. Heavy claws grabbed her legs, trying to yank her away, but she just tore deeper and deeper into the reaver’s throat. A vein burst and hot blood flooded out over her arm, and the reaver stumbled again, falling to its knees. The impact nearly shook her off, but Freya held tight, gasping for breath with her burning lungs and burning throat, barely able to see through her burning eyes drenched with hot tears.

The claws on her legs loosened and she shoved her knife deeper across the reaver’s throat, hacking and sawing at the monstrous windpipe and muscles and leathery flesh. The reaver leaned over and crashed onto the beach on its side and Freya slipped down to the ground, still clinging to her knife, which was stuck somewhere in the neck bones. Her arm was too tired and sore to cut anymore, so she let go of the knife and staggered back from the huge corpse. She fell on her backside, and sat there on the cold stones, weeping in silence.

He’s gone. Just… gone. I didn’t even… I should… he’s gone!

Slowly, she turned her head to look down the length of the dead reaver and she saw her spear, and then she saw four more harpoons all lodged down the belly and legs, and beside them were four gray-bearded fishermen in rusty, mismatched armor, gasping and wheezing and bleeding together on the beach beside her. One of them fell to his knees, his hand pressed to his chest, and two of his companions held him up and carried him through the door back inside the city. The last fisherman was the man who had stood at her side on the wall, and he shuffled over beside her and sat down in the snow.

After a few minutes, they both looked up to see a blinding white light bouncing along the top of the wall, and soon they could see Omar’s face as he ran toward them, sword in hand, and a moment later he was standing over them with a gathering crowd of men and women trickling out the seawall door to stare at the huge hairy body.

Back in the city there was cheering and shouting and laughing, and for a moment Freya couldn’t understand why anyone in the world could possibly feel any joy at that moment.

The old fisherman stood up, and Omar sat down in his place.

“We lost Erik?” he asked.

Freya nodded.

Omar stared blankly ahead, and then his face twisted in rage, and he leaned forward and plunged his bright sword into the body of the beast, and the fur and flesh instantly blackened, smoked, and burst into flame.

Chapter 32. Grief

Dimly, at the edges of her sight and hearing, Freya sensed the other people around them on the beach, some gawking at the corpse, some joking about the battle, others boasting and bragging. Gradually, they all moved back inside the wall, away from the stench of the burning reaver. But she stayed. And Omar stayed.

After an hour or so, when the fire had died down quite a bit and the drunken revelers of Rekavik were roaring merrily, Omar said, “My first wife died of old age. She was just forty-two, but that was quite old back then. I think I loved her, in a way. We were never close though. Two people in a house, was all. But we got along well, and there’s a kind of love that comes from just being together. Fixtures in each others’ lives. She died in her sleep, very peacefully, or so I was told. I wasn’t there. I was too busy forging my immortality. I regret that, a little. Even now. I can still remember her face, would you believe? But I’ve forgotten her name.”

Freya sighed.

“My other wives, I left. One by one, here and there. I don’t really know why I married any of them, except that at the time it made me happy,” he said. “They were pretty, or clever, or simply good company. It never lasted very long. Sooner or later, I would be ready to move on to some other project in some other country, and they wouldn’t want to go, and I never made them. A new land, a new life, a new wife.”

Freya sniffed and sat up a little bit, grateful for the distraction. “Did you really love any of them? I mean, really love them?”

“Yes, quite a few of them, though only for a short time. And that time grew shorter the older I grew. I’ve been losing touch with… whatever it is that makes a man a man. Growing, aging. Fearing, striving. I see young people like you, so full of life and passion, staring out at a world full of things you know nothing about, and yet full of confidence and bravado and your own sort of immortality, and I envy you, in all your crazed stupidity. Real immortality is a hollow imitation of the arrogance of youth. You have passions. I have regrets.”

He put his hand on her shoulder and she leaned into him. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what I’m saying. Erik deserved better. And you deserved better, too, after all of this nonsense. But that’s all just more regret, and that’s no good to him or to you now. Just remember that he loved you, and he must have been very happy in that love.”

“How do you know?” she croaked through her raw throat.

“I knew it from the moment I met you two. You had your own secret language. It was the two of you, together, against the whole world. Against murderers and queens and monsters. And when the plague took him, he went to the water mill to wait for you, in chains. At that moment, facing the end of his life, the end of his humanity, no one could blame him for running away to save his own skin. But he was as good as his word. He stayed. Because he trusted you. He knew you would save him. And you did. You risked your life to save him.”

“I didn’t save him tonight.”

“The fishermen told me what happened,” Omar said. “It was his turn to save you. And he gave his life for yours. Many a young man throughout history, all across the world, in countless languages, has promised a beautiful young woman that he would die for her. But precious few actually would, or do.”

“I didn’t want him to die for me.”

“I know.” Omar paused. “So, this one was Magnus, the long lost prince?”

Freya nodded.

“Such a pity. Such a waste. I remember him. He was a good man too, like his father. Brash and brave and bold, but honest. Decent. He deserved better than this, too. It seems no one gets what they deserve in this life.”

“Skadi did,” Freya whispered. “You killed her.”

“I did, fair lady, I most certainly did.” Omar leaned back to look up at the stars. The clouds had broken up and the snow had stopped and now the starry heavens stood naked above them. “But I’m afraid I didn’t kill her for you, or Ivar, or anyone else in Ysland.”

“You killed her for the pilot woman, didn’t you?”

Omar nodded. “Yes, I did. Maybe it was a moment of weakness on my part, but Riuza didn’t deserve to suffer and die like that for my stupid quest, for my selfish arrogance. Killing Skadi was the very least I could do for her, not that it did Riuza any good. Usually, when I see people die, I can tell myself that it’s none of my business. They would have died anyway, sooner or later. Riuza would have died sooner or later, too, but I can’t imagine it ever would have been so terrible as the end I brought her to. That was my fault, and it was unforgiveable.”

“Her death was Skadi’s fault, not yours.”

He shrugged and looked away.

“You really loved Riuza, didn’t you?”

Omar smiled at her. “I suppose I did, for a time.”

Freya sighed and leaned forward to pick at the small stones on the ground. “I should be more angry, shouldn’t I?”

He nodded at the charred remains of the reaver. “It looks to me that you were extremely angry. From my most considerable experience, I can tell you that most grieving women don’t rise to the task of giant-slaying in the heat of the moment. So perhaps you’ve already exhausted all your anger here.”

“Maybe. I should be sadder though, shouldn’t I? I’m not even crying anymore.”

“That’s all right. I’m sure you’ll cry some more later. Although, I have noticed that Yslanders are some of the more practical and less sentimental people in the world. That’s not a sin, fair lady. Erik knew you loved him. And you know that you loved him. Your gods won’t count your tears to judge whether your love was deep enough, or your devotion was strong enough. Feel whatever you feel, and when you’re ready, life will be waiting for you to move on.”

“To move on?”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say-”

“No, it’s all right, I know what you meant.” Freya looked at him. “Tell me something. How did you cure the plague, really?”

“I told you, with the bloodflies.”

“But how? You didn’t want Skadi to know, but now I want to know. This whole business of souls and aether and rinegold, it’s not natural. But it’s in me now. It’s in all of us, and I want to know about it.”

“Actually, it’s more natural than you might want to believe. There are natural laws for everything in this world, and aether is no exception. I have studied it for centuries with-”

“Omar. Just tell me about the cure. Please.”

He took a long, deep breath. “Well, I told you that I couldn’t just pull out the fox-soul from the reavers, no more than you can pull a drop of fresh water out of the sea. So instead, I added something. I bred up my new bloodflies with another sort of soul in them, a soul that could counteract the fox, a soul that was so healthy and stable that it would restore a reaver to its natural human state, ears notwithstanding.” He cleared his throat. “ My soul.”

She tilted her head to look at him. “Really?”

“Oh yes.” He nodded. “My soul is already bound to the sun-steel, the rinegold, around my neck. That relationship is governed by the metal, it keeps me changeless, and thus immortal. So by giving all of you a bit of my soul, a small part of that relationship is passed on to you. It’s a transitive property. I can show you the math, if you like. But in short, your bodies now have a strong resistance to change as well. So I imagine that this generation of Yslanders will live very long, very healthy lives. Not as long as me, but that’s a good thing.”

“But the ears.” Freya passed her hand carefully over her head, petting her tall, soft fox ears.

“As I said, I can’t take the fox-soul out. It was still in those bloodflies. But my soul is holding it in check, and my soul is much stronger than some prehistoric mongrel’s.”

“Hm.” Freya rested her chin on her knee. “Is that why the bloodflies don’t bite you? Because your soul is in them?”

“Of course they bite me!” Omar glared at the sky. “The damn things must have bitten me a hundred times when I was making those nests.”

“But you don’t have fox ears or eyes.”

“Because I am entirely unchangeable.” He held up his rinegold trinket on the chain around his neck. “Oh, I started to grow ears once or twice, but each time the fox-soul would be pushed out and I’d return to plain, old Omar again.”

“So does this mean you’ve lost your soul? Did it hurt you?”

“The soul-breaking was a bit unpleasant, courtesy of the flies,” he said. “And it has left me feeling a bit stranger than usual, mostly giving me an extremely strong sense of where all the Yslanders are at any given moment. But as they die, as they inevitably will, those drips and drabs of my soul will find their way back to me. In a hundred years, everything will just like it was before I ever came here.”

“Oh.” Freya stared over the smoldering bones at the black waters of the bay. She whispered, “I miss him.”

Omar nodded.

“I keep looking out there like he’s just going to come up out of the water without a scratch on him, smiling. Holding a fish. But he’s not, is he?”

“No, it’s been far too long. I’m sorry, but if that drop of my soul inside him was going to save him, if he was going to come back, he would have by now. I’m sorry.”

She sniffed and exhaled loudly. “So it’s really over then. What are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know. I suppose I should leave before I cause any more disasters around here. I don’t really belong here,” he said. “Not that I belong anywhere, but I definitely don’t belong here. It’s too cold and gray and quiet for my taste.”

“So your homeland is hot and bright and loud?”

He smiled a little. “Something like that.”

“Oh. I think Erik would have liked a place like that.”

Chapter 33. Kingcraft

Halfdan sat uneasily on the wooden throne of Rekavik. He shifted his weight, first asking for a cushion, and then putting it aside. And every time the wood creaked beneath his weight, he winced. Finally he stood up and said, “My cousin Ivar was a good man, and he’s dead. His son Magnus was a good man, and he’s dead. We’ve all lost good men and women over these last five years. Ysland has bled too much. There will be no more killing today. Turn them loose.”

The guards let go of the prisoners’ wrists, and Leif and Thora stepped away from them, rubbing their sore arms.

Freya stood on Halfdan’s left side with Omar, and Katja and Wren stood on his right in matching vala black. A single night’s sleep in a bed had brought Katja back from the shock of her cell, and now wearing one of the dead queen’s simpler dresses, she looked as confident and wise as ever, if a bit thinner around the waist and wearing a new pair of ears. Nearly everyone gathered in the new king’s audience chamber wore the fox ears now, and more than a few women had covered theirs with scarves, and some of the men wore caps, and some people couldn’t seem to stop tugging and picking at the soft furry things on top of their heads.

Freya touched her own ears. She kept forgetting they were up there. She wasn’t in the habit of fiddling with her hair, or wearing scarves, or looking in mirrors, and it was so easy to forget that they were up there. They felt soft and downy and warm, and they could bend and flop a little bit. Rubbing them gently sent a shiver down her scalp and spine, but mostly from the strangeness of it rather than any sort of pain. And they tickled sometimes when her short hair blew about in the wind. But otherwise, they were invisible to her.

I have a fox-soul inside of me.

And I have Omar’s soul inside of me.

What does that even mean?

The question faded as soon as she asked it. It didn’t matter.

“Leif Blackmane,” Halfdan said loudly. “You murdered many free and innocent men, and you allied yourself with the reavers, who also killed many free and innocent men, but you did so at the command of your queen. So you shall not die here today.”

“I’m telling you, I never spoke to any filthy reaver! It’s a lie!” Leif shouted. He turned toward Omar. “He’s a damned liar!”

“Shut up and be condemned like a man!” Halfdan snapped. “You are hereby banished from Ysland.”

The scowling youth looked up sharply. “ From Ysland? Where am I supposed to go?”

“You have six months,” the new king continued. “When autumn comes, if any man should find you still in Ysland, he shall be within his rights to strike you dead where you stand. And you, Thora Ingasdottir, for keeping Skadi’s secrets and knowingly, willfully aiding her in her schemes to seduce the king, to seize the throne, and to lead Rekavik into ruin, you are also banished from Ysland.”

The tall girl said nothing. She stared down at Halfdan’s feet with haunted, miserable eyes. But then she slowly lifted her gaze and turned to look at Freya, and Freya saw the cold hatred in the apprentice’s face as the tears tumbled from her unblinking eyes.

Halfdan grunted. “It’s only three hundred leagues or so to Alba. If you start swimming now, you may reach it before your six months are up. Guards, throw them out.”

The guards took the exiles out of the room, and the crowd of onlookers at the back all seemed to relax and exhale and stand a bit easier.

“Finally.” Halfdan sat back down on his throne, which creaked, and he winced. “Omar Bakhoum.”

Omar stepped out in front of the throne and turned to face the king.

“You came to this country as a friend, and you were treated poorly. Yslanders pride themselves on their hospitality, and you were most grievously wronged by Skadi and Leif. But despite that, you returned to us, you killed the demon Fenrir…” He trailed off with a frown.

Freya understood. They had told him earlier that morning, after he received his royal torque and sword, that Fenrir had been his cousin Ivar.

“You defeated our enemies and cured the plague,” Halfdan said. “For this, our entire country is in your debt, and anything you ask will be yours.”

Omar smiled brightly. “Well, that is most kind, my lord. I can see you will be every bit the king that your wise cousin was before you. But as for me, I’m merely pleased that I was able to right the wrongs that I helped to create, and all I ask now is for some small help in constructing a ship to carry me home south. A small sailing ship should suffice, an elegant xebec, perhaps. I can sketch something up later.”

“But we have no wood for making ships,” Halfdan said.

“That’s no problem, my lord. We’ll make it of steel. I’ll teach you how. And after I’m gone, well, if the Yslanders wish to take to the seas once more on ships of steel, well, that would be a very fine day, wouldn’t it?”

A happy murmur ran through the crowd behind him.

“Then you will have everything you need and every comfort as long as you are with us,” Halfdan said. “And the last bit of business to deal with, before I can get off this damned chair, is the small matter of our new vala.” He turned to the young ladies in black. “Is there anyone interested in holding this important position and fulfilling its sacred duties for us here in Rekavik?”

Wren and Katja exchanged smiles and nods, and Katja stepped forward. “I would be honored to serve you, King Halfdan.”

The king nodded. “And I’m honored to have your wise council. And what of our other little wise woman?” He smiled at Wren.

She smiled back nervously. “Actually, I’m far from being ready to serve anyone as a vala. I only know a few things, and I only have these eight unhelpful old ladies to guide me.” She held up her hand wearing the rinegold ring of Denveller. “So I think I’d rather continue as an apprentice. For now.”

“Ah, under our esteemed Lady Katja?”

“Well, no, actually.” Wren looked across the room. “Under Master Omar, if that’s all right. He seems to know more about the spirit world than anyone else alive. I can’t imagine a better teacher.”

All eyes turned to the southerner, and he rolled his eyes. “Oh very well, little one, but don’t expect to learn much from me. I’m sure I don’t know anything interesting.”

Everyone laughed.

Halfdan stood up from his wooden throne. “Freya Nordasdottir, please come here.”

Her heart pattered just a bit faster at the unexpected summons, and she felt momentarily nervous and even guilty, wondering why she was being called to answer to the king. But the girlish feeling vanished as quickly as it came and she stood in front of the bearded man. “Yes?”

A sad and weary look filled his eyes as he looked down at her. “Ask. Ask me for anything. Nothing in Ysland could reward your courage, or restore what you’ve lost, but ask anyway, so I can give you something.” He stepped down off the dais of his throne and stood in front of her, looking so much like her father that she almost wanted to hug him to make him stop looking so miserable.

“I don’t need or want anything,” she said. “Although, you’ve taken my sister as your vala, and Omar has taken my little friend as well.” She jerked her head toward Wren beside her. “So I suppose I’d just like to stay here. Maybe your seal-hunters and I could learn a thing or two from each other.”

“Done,” Halfdan said with a weary grin. “And more besides. Feasts and silvers and furs and whatever else I can heap on you, will be heaped on you.”

Freya managed a tired smile of her own, and nodded. “I suppose there are worse fates than that.”

Epilogue: Exile

The iron door of Rekavik slammed shut behind them. Thora glanced back once at the high south wall, at the lone guard at the top who was staring back down at her. And she set out.

“Where the devil do you think you’re going?” Leif asked as he started after her. “There’s nothing around her for leagues. Everyone’s dead or missing. The only people around here are in the city. We’ll never find any food out here, not in the middle of winter.”

Thora marched on. She headed west and stayed within sight of the sea, not straying south toward the snowy hills.

Leif followed, his entire gait a bit off balance for the lack of his arm. “You could have defended yourself, you know. You could have argued with Halfdan. He didn’t have any real charges against you, no evidence. You could have stayed if you really wanted to,” he said.

“I didn’t want to,” she said. “I don’t want to be here anymore, so there was no point in arguing.”

“No point?” He jogged up beside her. “Well, where the hell do you want to be? And don’t tell me you’re so in love with me that you just couldn’t stand to be apart, that you just had to follow me into exile, because I couldn’t stomach the sentiment.”

“I don’t love you, Leif, I never did,” she said quietly. “And I’m not following you into exile. You’re following me.”

The youth swept his long black hair back from his face. “And where exactly are we going? I don’t suppose you know of some mystic troll tunnel that will take us to Alba?”

“No. But I do know where we can find a boat that will take us to Alba.”

“What? Where? I thought all the old longships had rotted away or been burned as firewood.”

“They were. This isn’t a longship. It’s the steel ship that Riuza was building when she was supposed to be building the drill. Skadi kept the ship. She hid it.”

“Skadi kept the ship?” Leif grinned. “Clever old cow. She never told me about it.”

“There were lots of things she and I never told you about.” Thora paused on a bare flat rock and looked back at the distant walls of Rekavik. “I was the person that Omar saw meeting with Magnus two nights ago.”

Leif’s eyes flew wide and he lunged at her, his hand reaching for her throat. “You miserable bitch!”

She stepped aside and shoved his limbless shoulder, sending him stumbling through the snow. From inside her sleeve she drew a long, thin dagger of white bone. “I loved Magnus. I still love Magnus. He was strong and kind and beautiful, and he loved me. And when I heard that Fenrir had killed him, I wanted to kill myself. Of course, I learned soon enough that you were the one who led my prince out there to be slaughtered so Skadi could take the throne unchallenged.”

Thora shivered as the winter wind threw her long brown hair around her face. “I was planning to kill you both when I discovered that Magnus was still alive. He came to me one night when I was walking along the wall, and the sight of him nearly stopped my heart, he was so huge and hideous. But he spoke to me, and I knew it was him. So I stayed in the city, serving Skadi, hoping to find a cure for him. And when Freya came back with Ivar’s head, I had to tell Magnus. He deserved to know what had happened to his father.”

“You snake!” He hurled a fist of snow and pebbles at her.

Thora let them thump harmlessly on her heavy black cloak. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand real loyalty. Or real love.”

He laughed. “I loved you well enough.” He curled his tongue through the air in a beckoning lick.

She smiled strangely. “Not as well as you think. I loved Magnus, but as long as I couldn’t have him, I was willing to settle for you. It amused me to play with one of Skadi’s toys, simply because it shamed her. But it was never about you, Leif. I never saw you. It was always Magnus. Why else did you think I kept you on your knees?”

He threw up his hand. “And now?”

“Now Magnus is dead, and there’s nothing here for me anymore. So I’ll go to Alba, or wherever else the sea takes me.” She started walking again.

“What about me?”

“You can come, too. I suppose I can always use another pair of eyes or a spare hand. I have no illusions about how hard it will be to survive on the sea, or in Alba, or wherever we go,” she said over her shoulder. “But if you ever touch me again, Leif, I will kill you.”